Once upon a time, Esther Malka thought she was a queen. (In fact, her middle name, Malka, means “queen” in Hebrew.) Her “servants”—Mommy, Daddy and the staff in her kindergarten—would push her anywhere she wanted to go in her wheelchair. She never had to get up—just like a real queen.

Esther Malka was born with a rare bone disease. Today, at age 17, she’s an 11th-grader who lives in Kfar Chabad, Israel, and she’s endured more than 150 broken bones.

“I went to a kindergarten for kids with special needs. Most of them were fine intellectually, but almost completely nonfunctionalShe has endured more than 150 broken bones physically. I didn’t feel like I belonged there. There were kids who couldn’t do anything, and I had no respect for them. I was a normal, wild girl, with one handicap, which didn’t even seem like a handicap to me: my wheelchair.”

When Esther Malka was mainstreamed in Kfar Chabad’s first grade, the wheelchair no longer seemed like a throne; it began to irritate her. “For the first time, I understood that I was different. All my friends were jumping rope; I was the only one who couldn’t. No one ever told me why I couldn’t, why I was the only queen with a throne. It bothered me, but I told myself that I must be too special to play with the other girls in the class—that they weren’t good enough for me.”

The first time Esther Malka met doctors who didn’t wear white coats was in third grade. They were psychologists. “They asked me all kinds of questions that I couldn’t understand. First, they asked: ‘What does being confined to a wheelchair tell you?’ I never knew my chair could talk! Then I realized that it was telling me something, and what it was saying was too sad. I suddenly understood that I was different from everyone else and always would be. I would never be free of the wheelchair.”

The wheelchair became her enemy. “I would wake up in the morning and see the chair parked by my bed, and it would make me crazy. At some point, it was like a nightmare, seeing myself in the mirror, stuck in my chair. I couldn’t bear the sight of myself sitting in it.”

By fifth grade, Esther Malka was undeniably suffering from depression. “I thought I was the only one in the world with this disease. It felt like there was no reason to get up in the morning. There was no joy in me at all. I was confused and moody, and got more so every day.”

There have been many angels in her life. The first one came at this point.

“It was one of my teachers who stopped me from giving up. She recognized my distress, and knew that we couldn’t rely on a miracle to change my outlook. She was so caring and loving, and she told me that I could never let my illness know I was afraid of it—that I had to triumph at all costs. She managed to give me back some of the willpower I’d lost.”

Esther Malka’s bat mitzvah party, when she was in sixth grade, was meant to be a big event. She had her own ideas about how to celebrate the big day: “I wanted to grow. I wanted to be better. I knew it was up to me, that I was no longer a little girl. I tried to be calmer and more giving.”

But the grand plans were foiled. A week beforehand, on her way home from school, she found herself stuck, quite literally, between a rock and a hard place. “It had never happened to me before; I lost control of the wheelchair, and it flipped over. I weighed 40 pounds; the chair weighed 165 pounds . . . the doctors said it was a miracle I survived. I only knew I was still breathing because it hurt. I had broken bones all over my body.”

Her bat mitzvah was celebrated in the orthopedics ward, where the star of the show lay semi-paralyzed.

The long confinement was enough to break Esther Malka’s spirit again, and then adolescence came along. “I had a series of meltdowns in seventh grade. I became depressed again, more deeply than before. From the outside I seemed calmer than I had two years earlier, but inside? I was“I lost control of the wheelchair, and it flipped over” finished.”

That was when Esther Malka met her second angel.

“One friend was truly an angel. She knew what I was going through, and I poured my heart out to her. She was a true friend. She had no mercy on me, and didn’t accept my depression as a natural part of my illness. Until she came, I’d been feeling pitiable. She was the first one who wasn’t afraid to tell me that there are people worse off than me. She told me that my confinement to a wheelchair made me a hero of sorts, and made me see myself from a completely different angle.”

When Esther Malka was in ninth grade, her friend’s words started to make an impression on her. One morning, as she prepared to go to school, she stopped by the mirror. “I saw myself, in my chair, for the first time in several years. All at once, I decided to accept myself for who I am. I cried there, in front of the mirror, like I’d never cried before.

“That was the start of a new chapter. I realized that everyone has challenges and the power to rise to meet their challenges. Even though externally I looked worse off than my friends, I knew they had different problems that just didn’t show as much. I decided to learn to love my wheelchair. I understood that it wasn’t only helping me with a technical problem; it was helping me build my personality, challenging me to make the most of myself.”

But she kept these thoughts to herself. If you were to ask her classmates, they would tell you that Esther Malka was bent on destroying any positive connection that a teacher tried to build with her. “My behavior was astonishing, I admit. I had an amazing teacher who understood that I wasn’t a bad person—that my bad behavior wasn’t an intrinsic part of who I was. The better she understood me, the more disrespectful I became.”

Then came a turnaround after a parent-teacher meeting. She knew exactly what the teacher was going to tell her parents; it was the same every year. “She’s wonderful and she’s smart, but . . .”

“However, at this meeting, there was no ‘but.’

“‘Your teacher said that you’re gifted; that you’re super,’” her mother reported.

“‘But . . .’ I prompted. She just smiled.

“The next day, at school, I ran to the teacher and yelled at her. ‘Why did you lie? You should have told her the truth! My mother knows who I am!’ But my teacher didn’t understand what I wanted.

“‘I told the truth,’ she said.

“I was a maelstrom of emotions. I didn’t know what to think about her or about myself. Then I heard myself say, ‘People see what I’m not, but you see what I am.’ She ran out of the room so I wouldn’t see her crying, but I saw, and it made a crack in the wall I’d built up around myself. She was my third angel. She made me see there was something to me besides the wheelchair.”

Until that time, Esther Malka’s thoughts had revolved around“I was a maelstrom of emotions. I didn’t know what to think.” what she should do with herself. Now she began to think about what she could do for others. She remembered the years she’d looked down on kids who were just like her, but lower-functioning. She’d made fun of them in kindergarten, and she’d made fun of other kids she’d met over the years. Now it was time to make up for all that.

“I consulted with my best friend, and we decided that when I grew up, after high school, I would do something for handicapped kids. In the meantime, while we were in 10th grade, the Ministry of Education started a program to encourage volunteer work. Every girl in our class except me was assigned a child to work with, but the social workers were afraid to assign one to me. I went to my teacher and told her I was planning to start an organization that would be the first of its kind in Israel, as far as I knew, an organization for children who had physical handicaps but who were mentally and emotionally okay.”

No one thought she was serious. Yet that made her happy. “As soon as I said it, I realized what a huge job I was committing to. I was happy to use their teasing as an excuse to forget about that crazy idea. But my angels—my teacher from the year before and my good friend—heard about it. They wouldn’t let me get away with backing out.”

Esther Malka organized her first activity, even though it wasn’t easy. Six children from Kfar Chabad came, and because it was the first time, maintaining discipline was hard, especially from a wheelchair.

“I smiled at the kids, but I wanted to run away. I’d always hated myself, and here I was asking myself to look to these kids like a positive person—to smile at them and to be in charge. It was a shock. At the end, one kid hugged me and asked me when the next activity would be. That finished me. I went home and cried for hours. I didn’t want to put together another activity, but to fulfill the hours that the Ministry of Education wanted, I had to volunteer to help two families. In the meantime, Kfar Chabad was abuzz with talk of the activity I’d run. The two families I was helping kept asking and asking, ‘When’s the next activity?’ So I decided I’d do one more.”

She was better prepared the next time, and more relaxed. “I realized I was enjoying myself. When I thought about it afterwards, trying to understand what I’d enjoyed about it, I realized that this was my goal in life: to give to kids in need.”

Today, a year and a half later, Esther Malka’s organization is still active. Everyone in Kfar Chabad knows about it; so do outsiders. About 40 children from all over the country participate, with only five from Kfar Chabad. There are still activities for the kids, of course, but herShe spends hours talking to the kids on a regular basis organization has expanded. She now spends hours talking to the kids on a regular basis, and she’s in touch with their teachers when she feels it’s necessary. The organization offers emotional support to the children’s families, as well as outings and bat mitzvah parties. It’s not easy work, but she knows and feels that there aren’t a lot of people who can give what these children require.

She can.

At the end of my interview with Esther Malka, I had tears in my eyes. In my opinion, she really is sitting on a throne.