UCC rallies around young refugees and their providers in Pennsylvania
Written by Connie N. Larkman
July 24, 2014

Their stories are heartbreaking and hard to imagine. But they are no longer making the journey alone. United Church of Christ members are rallying in compassion and support of young refugee children, housed at Bethany Children's Home in Pennsylvania, and their caregivers, with offers of prayers, financial assistance and personal time.

"Bethany has received great support from our UCC churches, local community and friends," said Meggan Kerber, director of development at Bethany Children's Home "We are thankful for this support as we will continue our ministry to all children in need."

A part of the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries, Bethany is located outside of Reading, Pa. It was created at the time of the Civil War to care for abused, abandoned or neglected children. It has been protecting and providing for dozens of young refugees for more than a month under the Helping Hands program, which gives the newcomers food, clothing, schooling, and a place to sleep as Bethany caseworkers work to reunite them with their families in this country.

"When they arrive to our care, they smile as we explain the intake procedures of a clean shower, warm food, and clean clothing," said Priscilla, one of the Bethany caseworkers. "Their eyes shine with happiness when they are all taken care of with a small amount of love and attention. It is unbelievable to see the change in their eyes and faces from scared and helpless to calm and content. It is hard to believe that a case manager would not want to experience such a transforming moment with their clients."

The presence of a dozen protestors outside the facility in Womelsdorf, Pa., northwest of Philadelphia, on Sunday, July 20, was noted by the news media. The group, unhappy with U.S. immigration policies that brought the children to Bethany, circled the campus for most of the day in a peaceful demonstration, countered by the silent witness of Bethany supporters whose numbers grew throughout the day once the word of the protest got out.

On Monday, July 21, three area congressmen toured the facility and met some of the children who made the dangerous journey to the United States. Kerber said while this visit with Republican Reps. Jim Gerlach, Charlie Dent and Patrick Meehan was a positive one, it underscored the bigger issue -- how does the United States help the countries that these children are coming from stabilize themselves so they don't leave?

"I have three kids, and I can't imagine my wife under any circumstances, or myself, handing our young children over to a stranger to go thousands of miles," Dent said. "You must be desperate beyond all measure to be willing to do that."

As Bethany staffers work to make their charges comfortable, they are bolstered by the growing encouragement of the local community and the huge outreach by local UCC congregations in the area, calling and offering help. "Each day, we receive between 30 and 50 phone calls and emails asking about our program," said Kerber. "We have many individuals now collecting new items from the wish list we are providing to them."

"I will be taking a group of 18 this Saturday [July 26] to do some work and repairs at Bethany," said the Rev. Michael Jones, assistant pastor at New Goshenhoppen UCC. "We are also in the process of collecting clothing and other necessities for the children that are being taken care of there. We see it as part of our Christian mission and calling to care for anyone in need, and these children are in need. We support Bethany in its mission to do the same."

"Each youth has a story and they work hard every day to overcome their challenges," said Kerber. "The Bethany family is truly thankful for the support of the UCC national offices, our local churches and those throughout the country who are reaching out to us. We could not do what we do without that support."

While Bethany staff members are heartened by the gifts and prayers, they say they experience their best rewards facilitating the family reunions.

"One of these rewarding experiences involves a young girl who was recently reunited with her mother, after just telephone contact," Priscilla said. "She was 2 months old when her mother last saw her in her home country.  When I told her we were reuniting her with her mother, her face was stunned. She looked straight into my eyes to make sure I was not lying. Then she drew a bright, big smile of happiness and excitement. Her expression was remarkable! She asked many times when she can start packing, and at what time her mother would pick her up."

"When I contacted her mother, she was just as impatient to reunite with her daughter. She left her home state at 3 a.m. to arrive first thing in the morning. When the time came, the staff could not fight back the tears as we witnessed the emotional encounter with this family. Her mother ran from the car to the center's door to hug her daughter. The young girl was in shock and shaking as tears rolled down her face."

Bethany hopes to help 300 refugees reunite with family members over the next several months. The facility can handle 32 unaccompanied children at one time, and hope to grow that number to 64 with building improvements currently in the works. The children, ages 5 to 14, stay only 10 to 14 days, but leave a lasting impression on their caregivers.

"I will always remember the first group admitted to the Helping Hands program," said Melinda, another caseworker. "It was a group of five girls between the ages of 10 and 13 who, from the first moment, were so happy and grateful to be here at Bethany Children's Home. I can still see their faces light up and smile as we drove up to the campus and they could see the pool and playground. One of them very excited asked, "Are we allowed to play on there?" It was as if, for at least that moment, they could be children again and forget about all the stressors of the past couple of days. They were excited about the little things we shared with them, like arts supplies. They happily shared their crafts with staff. It is those innocent smiles and humble attitude from these children that make me eager to start my day each and every single day at Helping Hands."

"Bethany Children's Home has been doing significant ministry with vulnerable children and youth for over 150 years," said the Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufass of UCC Disaster Ministries. "The exact shape of that ministry with children and youth changes as the world's needs change. Because those long-term commitments prompted the organization to go through the ‘Sanctuary' accreditation process several years ago, Bethany Children's Home was positioned well to provide a safe and caring place for unaccompanied child refugees now fleeing Central America."

To help fund Bethany's work with refugee children, the UCC has provided a $3,000 solidarity grant, and hopes to continue to send financial support to Helping Hands through a special emergency appeal for unaccompanied child refugees. The Refugee Enabling Fund will be used to provide food, water, safe places, a listening pastoral ear, religious services, and legal assistance. Donations can be made securely online, at local UCC congregations, or directly to UCC Wider Church Ministries.

"It's an honor for me to play a vital role in reunifying families with their loved ones, said Priscilla. "As case manager, the overwhelming joy and satisfaction I experience in the success of our stories is priceless."

Read a letter from the National Officers of the United Church of Christ and the Council of Conference Ministers calling for action around these young refugees fleeing Central and Latin America and seeking safety in the United States. In a unified voice, UCC leaders declare their support for these children that are leaving their homelands out of fear.


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Ms. Connie N. Larkman
Managing Editor & News Director
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