Israeli 12th-grader starts project in which young musicians lead 10- to 21-year-olds on the autism spectrum in expressing themselves through music.
By Abigail Klein Leichman and Naama Barak, ISRAEL21c
Adir, 14½, has difficulty expressing himself in words. But in the unique music-mentoring program “Special Sound” (Tzlil Meyuchad) founded and led by Israeli teens, Adir communicates exactly what he’s feeling, says his mother, Meirav.
“He can express himself through the instruments – he can play harder or he can play faster. He’s crazy about music and has a wonderful sense of rhythm, and he loves singing,” she adds. “He eagerly awaits each meeting. It’s emotional therapy in every respect and it does him so much good.”
Special Sound’s founder, 18-year-old Yuval Sinay of Ramat Gan, received the President’s Award for Volunteerism in July.
Sinay tells ISRAEL21c that when he was 16, he began leading groups of children with special needs through Tzofim, Israel’s national Scouting movement.
“It was amazing but also the most difficult thing I ever did. There was one autistic boy, Liav, about 12 years old, with many difficulties in communication and behavior. One day at summer camp, Liav heard a big noise and started fighting with us and crying. We didn’t know what to do. At this moment my supervisor, Idan, decided to start playing his guitar. And it was like magic: All the noise and crying and fighting calmed down and the only thing Liav wanted was to play the guitar even though he didn’t know how.”
Three months later, Sinay was accepted into LEAD, an elite Israeli leadership-training program in which teenagers plan, implement and manage projects for the benefit of society.
“I thought about the situation with Liav and I realized many children like him could benefit from a youth organization that would be musical, educational and social for children with and without special needs.”
Sinay learned all he could about music therapy, which is available widely in Israeli schools, and surveyed parents of special-needs children about the potential of the program he was proposing: to match high school-age “music mentors” with special-needs Israelis aged 10 to 21 in weekly meetings filled with instrumental and vocal music.
“More than 80 parents told us they would like to have a youth organization like that and were sure it could benefit their children’s development,” says Sinay.
His high school in Ramat Gan agreed to provide a space. Sinay recruited money and musical instruments as well as professional advice from adults including Adi Altschuler, a LEAD alumna who received international recognition for founding Krembo Wings in 2002, a successful Israeli scouting movement run by teen counselors for kids with motor, cognitive and sensory disabilities.
“We got the word out everywhere we could, including the media, and in the summer of 2018 my friend Ella Wizel from Ganei Yehuda started to work with me,” says Sinay.
Two months later they ran their first program with 35 participants on the autistic spectrum and 35 music mentors. “It’s kind of our baby, born on October 25, 2018. Wow, it was amazing and scary,” Sinay recalls.
President’s Award for Volunteerism
Special Sound groups participants and mentors into “bands” designated with different colors.
“The idea is to give each of our children the best place to develop and have fun. Our way of working in groups, not just one on one, really develops their social skills and we haven’t seen it anywhere else.”
Sinay and Wizel received several local and regional awards for Special Sound as well as first place in the Israeli branch of the international Design for Change competition. They will fly to Rome to receive that award. The President’s Award for Volunteerism was the icing on the cake.
“For me and for Ella, this has been the most amazing thing we ever thought to do. It was a dream we had worked so hard for. Today, parents tell us we changed the lives of their children and the music mentors tell us we changed their lives too,” Sinay tells ISRAEL21c.
“Most importantly, we see how much the children love Special Sound and want to be there. Now they have a place that gives them much music and love.”
Adir’s mom, Meirav, explains that in every session, each kid is invited to play or perform in front of his or her small band. “It achieves a sense of confidence for the child, that there’s someone who’s listening to him,” she says.
Now that Sinay and Wizel have graduated high school and starting a year of national service, they are seeking an adult to head Special Sound or an organization willing to take it under its wing. They will continue to be involved as much as possible.
“Next year we plan to open Special Sound clubs in Kiryat Ono, Taibe and Beersheva, and hopefully in additional cities,” says Sinay.
Expanding Beyond Israel
Shay Friedwald, a close friend of his doing a year of national service through the Jewish Agency in Arizona, is working to set up a small pilot of Special Sound there. “The Jewish Agency in Arizona already works with children with special needs and we thought that maybe this could be part of their program,” says Sinay.
“Our purpose is to reach as many children as we can through music and mentors. We believe one of the most powerful things in the world is the value of a youth leading a youth. Until Special Sound, there was no place in Israel, and maybe not in the world, where musically talented teenagers can use their abilities to help develop special-needs children within the context of a youth organization.”
They ended the school year with a performance.
“We had an amazing show with all our music mentors and children. If you’d asked me when we started whether all 35 children could stand on stage in front of 300 people and sing and dance and play instruments, I probably would have laughed and said it was impossible. But we learned that it is absolutely possible,” says Sinay.
“We can change the world and make it a better place. It’s in our hands to make a difference and if we believe and are willing to work really hard we can do it in a small way and later in a big way.”
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