Yoel Sharon was paralyzed in his lower body after an Egyptian tank hit his APC, during the Yom Kippur War, an attack which killed 19 Israeli soldiers and left three wounded. In spite of the severe physical limitations, Yoel was determined to continue the course of life he took before the war and fulfill his dreams.
He went on to complete his film studies at Tel-Aviv University and started what would become a very successful career in the film industry with offices in Hollywood and Tel-Aviv. He also got married, had two daughters and lived a very social existence. But something was missing.
When Yoel was offered to produce a film about scuba diving around Sharm-El-Sheik, featuring ex-commando veterans and the country’s top instructors, Yoel listed one of his conditions that “Only if I can dive with you during the shoot it’s a deal. If not, I am not interested.” They agreed and he, against the wishes of his rehabilitation doctor, who told him his “nuts” and risking his life, became the first paralyzed person to learn to dive. Yoel describes the shoot as “the most exciting three weeks of his life. “I had simply discovered the underwater world, and as a paraplegic, I discovered the feeling of hovering, weightlessness, this incredible pleasure.” This is when the seeds of his new life mission were sown.
When the first automated 4.4 Jeeps arrived in Israel, Yoel bought one and organized trips for disabled and abled IDF veterans to enjoy nature and camaraderie. Then a good friend of Yoel’s showed him a device from America that allowed paralyzed people to ski, he was convinced and together with a one legged ski instructor organized Israel’s first snow-skiing course for the disabled, in Austria. “Suddenly, I found, the ultimate thing – being in nature as much as one could be, at a sports site with everyone else, reaching enormous speeds, passing skiers on your left and right. Truly an amazing experience.”
They pitched the idea to the disabled IDF veterans association, expecting them to jump on board, but when met with skepticism, they realized that they needed to take responsibility and not be told how to “rehabilitate” and live their lives.
Yoel and his friends went on to found a non-profit organization, The Snow Skiing Foundation for the Disabled. They soon realized that it was too limited for the scope of operation. They wanted to include all outdoor sports. In 1994 Etgarim or Challenges was formed as an official Israeli nonprofit organization
Yoel claims that Etgarim was established long before the snow-skiing trip to Austria, or the cycling trip to Eilat, or the adventures of diving in the Red Sea, and even long before my injury in the city of Suez during the Yom Kippur War.
Etgarim was actually born during World War II. “I am a second generation to the Holocaust, a second generation to “surviving parents,” says Yoel. “My mother is a Holocaust survivor from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. My father is a survivor of the work camps in Russia — an amazing story of eight years in a forced-labor camp near the North Pole, with an escape story that is even more amazing. I think that when you are born to parents like these, even if they don’t talk to you about their past, you turn out to be a “survivor” in your genes. I think that already at Bergen-Belsen or at the work camp by the North Pole, the first seeds of Etgarim were sown.”
Today Etgarim, empowers the special needs population in Israel to get involved in outdoor and extreme sports, allowing them to meet their potential, extend their abilities in all areas of life and be a part of the greater community. There motto is “Believe and you can achieve!”
Edited from Etgarim