Israel at 65: Yad Sarah provides lifeline to elderly, disabled

AJP Associate Editor Sheila Wilensky was in Israel in January with the American Jewish Press Association.

A Yad Sarah volunteer prepares a wheelchair to be loaned to a client.
A Yad Sarah volunteer prepares a wheelchair to be loaned to a client.

From inhalers and humidifiers to walkers and wheelchairs, Israel’s Yad Sarah provides homecare services to thousands of people — all for free. Founded in 1976 in one room, Yad Sarah now has 100 branches countrywide with thousands of volunteers, and saves the Israeli economy $400 million annually in hospital and long-term care costs. Yad Sarah is funded by donations, 80 percent of which come from within Israel.

On our first day in Israel, on Jan. 24, my AJPA colleagues and I visited Yad Sarah national headquarters in Jerusalem. It was a bustling place, with a wide variety of activities taking place in the multi-story building.

How did it all begin? Uri Lupolianski, a young Jerusalem high school teacher, borrowed a vaporizer from a neighbor for a sick child. Word got out. People started dropping off medical equipment they no longer used; in a short time Lupolianski was loaning crutches and other equipment to anyone who asked. His father, Jacob, retired, sold his small shop and contributed to Yad Sarah’s start-up. The nonprofit was named for Uri’s grandmother, Sarah Lupolianski, who had died in the Holocaust.

Today, more than 420,000 people use Yad Sarah’s services annually. More than 320,000 items of medical and rehabilitative equipment are lent out, from the most basic crutches to the most sophisticated cardiac apnea monitors. The organization’s outreach provides a mobile geriatric dental clinic to homebound individuals, and makes around 500 daily trips in wheelchair-accessible vans, some of which are to bring individuals to Yad Sarah’s rehabilitation centers for physical, art or occupational therapy, to learn horticulture, or to bring children to play centers for those with special needs. For homebound seniors living alone, Yad Sarah runs an emergency response system, supplying them with two-way transmitters that connect them to the organization’s computerized emergency center 24 hours a day.

“It’s about the power of the individual,” said David Rothner, Yad Sarah’s spokesperson, “what each and every one of us can do. Our volunteers are dentists and laborers. They’re Jewish and non-Jewish. It’s all free because we don’t pay for person power. We have 40,000 wheelchairs on the road, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean.” Trucks constantly are carrying equipment to branch locations around Israel.

During our tour of Yad Sarah’s national headquarters, we stopped at mission central: the phone bank where volunteers may receive up to 200 calls a day. “Someone may call because they’ve lost their eyeglasses, or fainted or haven’t spoken to anyone in three days. Some people don’t know what they need,” Rothner told us. “The person who calls can’t disconnect. Only we can disconnect.”

Younger volunteers may be doing national service. “I didn’t go into the army because I’m religious,” said Dvora, 25, who started as a volunteer but now has one of the organization’s few paid jobs. “I can give more to the country, do more for myself and other people here.”

“We also help recycle people, not only equipment,” said Meir Meyer, vice chairman of Yad Sarah, adding that instead of serving in the army a young person with special needs may find satisfying work at Yad Sarah.

For the hundreds of volunteers going into people’s homes, “it’s important to match the right volunteer to the right person,” said Rothner. “We also have a special tourist service for people who need medical equipment, transportation. We pick them up at the airport. If it weren’t for Yad Sarah they wouldn’t be able to come to Israel.” For tourists, the equipment loan is free but there’s a daily fee for van transportation.

In 1984, Yad Sarah added Yad Riva Legal Services, which combats elder abuse and offers free legal representation for seniors. Its work is carried out by volunteers who are case attorneys, law students and social workers.

The organization’s services adjust to client needs. For long-time Israelis, noted Meir, “one of the beautiful projects we have may be to teach grandparents how to use computers, writing a biography — their whole story of coming to Israel.”

In addition to winning the Israel Prize and other national honors, Yad Sarah has been recognized by the United Nations, first as an NGO associated with the UN Department of Public Information, and later granted advisory status to the UN Economic and Social Council, the highest status an NGO can achieve on a global level.

“We serve all people,” including secular and Orthodox Jews, Druze, Muslims and Arabs, said Rothner. One out of every two families in Israel has been helped by Yad Sarah. “We all serve each other. It’s people helping people. All the politics are left at the main entrance.”

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