The United Church of Christ is calling for compassion, care and prayer for the thousands of children who have come to the United States fleeing violence and conflict in Central America and the people in this country who are offering them refuge. Bethany Children’s Home, a UCC ministry serving children and families in need in Womelsdorf, Penn., northwest of Philadelphia, is one of the places these children have found safe harbor.
"This is perhaps the largest crisis our country has experienced regarding children since the Civil War when Bethany was founded," said Bethany Children’s Home CEO Kevin Snyder.
Since 1863, Bethany has been providing a safe space for youth who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and want to take back their lives. With this wave of young refugees, the home has launched the Helping Hands program for unaccompanied children who have made the dangerous journey to America. Right now, 32 of them are housed there.
This Sunday, as part of an Interfaith Weekend of Compassion and Prayer for Unaccompanied Children, the UCC is asking its congregants and churches to take time during worship services on Sunday, July 20, to stand in silent witness and prayer for these young refugees and the people around the country reaching out to help them.
The Rev. Don Wetzel, pastor of St. Thomas UCC in Linglestown, Penn., and a Bethany Children’s Home board member, is proud of the facility staff and the children he is looking forward to ministering to.
"Bethany welcomes prayers for the staff of Bethany Children’s Home, as they carry out the faithful witness of caring and hope," said Wetzel. As for the young refugees, "Bethany welcomes prayers on their behalf and for their families who have endured so much, for God’s blessing of protection, well-being, safety, and surprising joy."
The circumstances the children have faced are hard to take in. "Children are talking about walking for months, through jungles, crossing rivers, through unbelievable terrain to get to the United States," Snyder said. "The only thing they come with is what they are wearing. And though they are not related, the older children are very caring, very protective of the younger children."
While in the care of the professionals at Bethany, the children are fed, housed and given a week's allocation of clothing. They are medically evaluated and spend time learning English, among other subjects, in school. In addition to classroom education, the children are able to socialize and have fun. Most importantly, Bethany offers a way to reunite the young refugees with family members in a safe and timely way.
"It has been a delight to have them," said Snyder. "But it's a quick turnaround. They stay with us for 10 days to two weeks and we send them out to their families. It's been extremely rewarding."
One of the children, an 11-year-old girl from Honduras, came looking for her mother who left her home when she was two. Her caseworkers said the child traveled with other children in the care of several "guides" along the way. One of them, described as "very irresponsible" only fed them once in 48 hours, took money to change their currency and the child never saw her money again. She crossed two rivers, the first river to pass into Mexico, and the second river to cross over to America. She was scared, as she could not swim. However, she was placed on a makeshift raft and crossed over.
Once in Texas, the "guide" directed them to keep going until they got caught. When captured by U.S. Border Patrol, she said she was scared, kept in a holding cell for 10 days where she slept on the floor and was not allowed to shower.
The girl's life changed once she got to Helping Hands. She got a shower, a phone call, food and new clothes. She went to school to learn English. After 11 days she was reunited with her family. Before she left, her caseworker said, "She knew how to say hello, good morning, how are you, please and thank you. She said her goodbyes, and, before leaving, she stated that she would never forget us and that she would miss us."
Bethany is just a month into the Helping Hands program and has already assisted 60 children, ages 4 to 14. The facility is remodeling a few buildings right now so additional children can be served. The hope is, by the end of August, the 32 children in residence at one time will grow to 64. Snyder believes the program will help resettle 300 young refugees as part of this government program in the next year. That's in addition to the 300 children from the local community that Bethany assists every year, but Snyder and his staff are up for the challenge.
"We have been blessed to be a part of this program," he said. "We are proud to be a part of this effort, because these are very loving, needy children. We get so many 'thank-yous' throughout the day."
But Helping Hands could use a helping hand. "It's been extremely rewarding," Snyder said. "But the challenge we have, the shortfall we face, is with clothing."
The program provides $70 for seven sets of clothing for each child, and the financial generosity of donors is making up the rest. Bethany is currently working to secure contracts with clothing manufacturers so they can purchase the sizes and quantities they need at wholesale prices. The UCC has also issued a special appeal for those wishing to provide financial assistance to efforts and programs like Helping Hands.
Snyder wants to extend a sincere thank you to the churches that have and those that intend to support this ministry through prayer and resources. "Our greatest need is to provide these children a safe, warm environment to learn and grow while in our care," he said. "Together, we are working to provide a brighter future for kids and families."
To learn more about Bethany Children’s Home visit its website.