Happy Birthday, Nitai. With love, from Hila.

Hila, coordinator of volunteers at the village, is the sister of Nitai, a wonderful young man diagnosed with autism and intellectual developmental disabilities. In an open letter marking Nitai’s 21st birthday, Hila talks about their special relationship and their connection to ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran.

21 years ago, I received the best present a little girl could ever want. I got a baby brother! They sat me down in a chair, and I was allowed to hold the baby very carefully and quietly.

I would sit next to his crib for hours and stare, mesmerized at how pretty and how sweet a baby could be. And when I got up to tip-toe out of the room in total silence, he would wake up and immediately start to cry.

Nitai was always smart enough to know what was going on around him. Ever since I was old enough to understand, I did my best to watch over him and take care of him. I wanted so much to be a good big sister, to teach him, to guard him from heartache and to be a safe anchor for him.

When he was little, I would sit him down in a chair, helpless, and make him play with me — I was the teacher and he was the student in the pretend class in our bedroom. He grew up too fast, developing from slow, tiresome crawling to strong, erect walking. Even running off in the distance.

This past year I noted the young man he has become – the rich vocabulary he has acquired, he politeness and sensitivity, the pride he brings to my wonderful parents.

Our juxtaposed lives, my role in relation to him and his role in relation to me, the roles we took upon ourselves and those that developed over time, taught me what family means. Family responsibility.

I learn something new from Nitai every single day; lessons on compliance and acceptance, patience, compassion and unconditional love. Lessons only he can teach me.

The birthdays that we celebrated with Nitai over the years included buying every single thing he wanted and eating out in a restaurant.

I know that was enough for him, but it wasn’t for me. Every year I shed tears, grieving for all of the things Nitai is missing, all the things he should have had. Friends, fun, a girlfriend, for example.

This past year, Nitai and I were fortunate to get to know the ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran family. And I say we were fortunate because it really isn’t something to be taken for granted.

Nitai built himself a social circle, friends that are his in his own right, and I found a place where all of my protectionism for Nitai disappeared as if it never existed because Nitai feels he belongs and feels secure.

Today, Nitai is celebrating his 21st birthday at the happiest place in the world (no, not Disneyland!). He is celebrating in the village, the place that for me has long ceased to be just a place of employment. Nitai is celebrating with his own friends. Residents, National Service volunteers, staff, volunteers and his/my friends who are like family for us.

During the past week, I received countless phone calls asking me what to bring, what Nitai likes, checking to see what time to arrive because it means so much to them not to be late. I came to understand how much good exists around us. I learned that the reality of life is not found in the stares of people in the street who gape at us, or in the woman at the medical clinic who picked up her child and distanced him from Nitai, as if what he has is contagious.

I am so excited, so full of appreciation. I am happy and grateful.

All that remains for me today is to wish Nitai health and that his path in this world be easy, full of light and accompanied by the special people who surround us now.

This year, no material gift I could buy would bring Nitai excitement like the exhilaration and expectation he feels in anticipation of his birthday in the village.

The children in the picture taken 21 years ago could never have dreamed for even one minute of everything that they have today.

A huge thank-you.

From Nitai and me. – Hila

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