Annual awards celebrate students’ social action projects

Imagine having access to technology that could provide the constant reassurance your much-loved elderly parent or grandparent was safe despite the worry of a medical condition or concerns created by physical distance.

It may sound like something from a science-fiction film or a futuristic hope – but it is a possibility that ORT students have brought closer.

A team from the ORT Herzl Technological school in Kishinev, Moldova, have created a wearable device which can constantly monitor the condition of people with long-term medical issues and then notify loved ones and emergency services if the person suffers a heart attack, stroke, fall or other medical concern.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, the device is fitted to a simple vest or T-shirt, meaning the user can easily wear it every day.

The Herzl students are one of six teams from five countries named as winners of the 2019 World ORT Gina and Joseph Harmatz Award for social responsibility in recognition of their efforts in pursuit of Tikkun Olam.

The smart T-shirt designed by students at ORT Herzl Technological school in Kishinev

The smart T-shirt designed by students at ORT Herzl Technological school in Kishinev

The ORT network has always been driven by Jewish values and our projects promote Tikkun Olam and social responsibility to students in more than 30 countries.

Avi Ganon, World ORT Director General and CEO, said: “The Harmatz Award has become an annual celebration of the positivity of social action and responsibility across the ORT network.

“What we see in these projects is so many of the values that ORT believes in: Tikkun Olam, teamwork, a sense of belonging, forward-thinking attitudes and problem-solving skills.

“Combining these strengths is allowing our students to unleash their potential, while helping them to empower others at the same time. We are very proud of all the winners.”

The Kishinev students’ smart T-shirt features integrated temperature and pulse sensors, as well as a gyroscope and accelerometer to detect severe changes in body position – if the patient has fallen or lost consciousness for example. If an incident occurs and the wearer cannot respond within 15 seconds, a mobile app triggers an alert to notify family members and transmit the person’s location by GPS. It can also send real-time health data and vital signs to assist medical teams via Bluetooth.

Sandu Chirita, the team’s lead developer, said: “We have developed an early stage prototype that has all the initial features. We have to gather feedback from those the shirt would help, and then adapt our design to fulfil their needs.

“We plan to make the device smaller, more accurate, more reliable and more convenient for the wearer, as well as integrating textile changes to get rid of wires. We need to find resources to make the device fully washable as well.”

Sandu said the team was sorry not to be able to “improve the life of every person and cure every disease, but even helping a single person is a step towards making the world a better place to live in – and that’s what Tikkun Olam is about”.

Nikolay Nejintev, the team’s web developer, added: “We created a website to store the information read directly from the T-shirt. This interface constantly monitors the heartbeat, body position and temperature, and the number of steps made.

“All the information is sent to the cloud, so you can check the location and health condition of your loved one using a web browser, anywhere, anytime.”

Other 2019 award winners included a volunteer project run by students at the ORT Tekhiya School in Moscow, Russia.

Having previously created programs for visiting the sick and meeting lonely elderly people, the pupils decided to deepen their relationship with older community members by asking them to share their experiences of the war, the Holocaust and their lives. Around 20 people have done so already.

Five students have coordinated their peers in taking care of forgotten graves in Jewish cemeteries and organizing celebrations at orphanages.

Pupils from King David Linksfield High School in South Africa

Pupils from King David Linksfield High School in South Africa

Carly Rachelson and Anna Kayla Joffe were also acknowledged for their volunteering efforts in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The pair said their “mission” to help the underprivileged had driven them to organize weekly bus trips from their King David Linksfield High School – which is affiliated to ORT – to two local institutions: the Selwyn Segal home for the disabled, and Sandringham Gardens home for the elderly.

Among the activities organized by the girls are an annual Purim play for residents, a fundraising event aimed at creating awareness of mental disability, and efforts to bring dogs to visit residents, because so many of the elderly people miss having their own dog.

Carly and Anna said: “We feel it is so important to reach out to these people because not only does it better their lives, but we learn magnitudes from them. This project will always hold a special place in our heart.”

Volunteering veteran Danny Leon, a 17-year-old student at World ORT Kadima Mada’s Kfar Silver Youth Village in Israel, was another winner.

She dedicates herself to helping peers at no fewer than three youth clubs and centers in her local area – at one working with younger, gifted children to enrich their learning experience; at another taking part in religiously conservative youth movement activities aimed at encouraging equality and fairness across society; and finally at Igy, a youth movement for LGBT+ teenagers.

Danny explained: “I joined Igy last year after I came out. It serves as a safe place for teens from the community, but we also participate in protests and parades in an attempt to make LGBT+ people more accepted by society. For example, shortly after I joined we organized the first ever Pride event in Ashkelon, which was very successful.

“I enjoy volunteering and I try to do it as often as I can, and these three places allow me to use my strengths in order to help those around me, for which I am grateful.”

The message from students at the “Gesher” ORT secondary school in Samara, Russia, was “it’s never too late to learn”. Their volunteer group works with older people to tutor them on using the internet in order to communicate with relatives in other cities.

Students show the elderly how to write emails, use social media and take part in computer classes once or twice a month.

There was also a social media theme for the team from the ORT Instituto de Tecnologia in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where their project – Brailinux – created a translating interface which turns tweets into Braille so the blind can use Twitter.

Students from ORT Instituto de Tecnologia in Brazil with their Brailinux project

Students from ORT Instituto de Tecnologia in Brazil with their Brailinux project

The team hopes to convert the technology to be used on ebooks, longer online articles or messaging services.

Prizes are awarded in memory of the late Gina and Joseph Harmatz, who played pivotal roles in ORT’s history.

Joseph Harmatz was Director General and CEO of World ORT in the 1980s-1990s and was a partisan who was regarded as a hero of Lithuania’s resistance movement against the Nazis.

Gina Harmatz escaped Nazi persecution in western Europe in the 1930s and 1940s before settling in Israel. She was renowned for her graciousness and the importance she placed on family relationships and concern for the welfare of others.

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