Response: June 2017 Issue

A Solid Foundation

Bethlehem Center changes with the times to meet the shifting needs of its community.

A Solid Foundation
Sewing to Sow, a program for seniors, is one of several activities available at Bethlehem Center. Photo: jimwestphoto.com

When the Bethlehem Center in Spartanburg, South Carolina, started in the 1930s, life in the African-American, lower-income neighborhood surrounding it was far different from today.

The segregated community was largely isolated, and many local residents worked as cooks, maids and caregivers for well-to-do families while their children walked unpaved streets, played in dirt fields and often fended for themselves out of necessity. Education and social opportunities were sorely limited.

In those early days, the Bethlehem Center was established to meet the needs of the surrounding Highland neighborhood: caring for children while their parents worked, providing hot meals for families, offering cooking and sewing classes to provide needed job skills. A United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution, the center became a cornerstone of life there, a much-needed resource that saw the area and its people through wartime, the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.

But fast-forward to the 1980s and the rise of drugs, particularly crack cocaine, and the Bethlehem Center transitioned to a new way of meeting the needs of its neighbors: providing a safe haven for children. Afterschool care, scouting opportunities, family planning classes and life skills training established the center as a second home for many local residents, a place where they could turn when so much around them was crumbling into decay.

Striving to thrive

Today, the Bethlehem Center is transitioning again. While the Highland community has its share of struggles, from unemployment and drug addiction to high crime rates, it is a community still very much striving to thrive. An active neighborhood association has formed and partnered with the center to serve residents and enable growth. Practical future visioning is at work, and those who visit the Bethlehem Center today are as likely to be there to help others as to get help themselves.

“It’s about moving families closer to self-sufficiency, about high standards and discipline, about showing people there are possibilities, there is hope,” says Patrena Mims, executive director of the Bethlehem Center.

It has changed with the times to meet the changing needs of the community, and today it has become a center that tries its best to mission to people and families holistically, whether it is through the food pantry, boxing program, job training, thrift store, afterschool program, senior wellness or its latest major focus—technology.

“It’s everything to the community,” said Thomas Hargrove, Bethlehem Center volunteer and vice president of the Highland Neighborhood Association.

Walking through the halls is an eye-opener into the true needs of the neighborhood. A woman buzzes for entrance, then asks where she can get some assistance with food. Staff is busy getting supplies, worksheets and snacks for the children who will arrive in another hour for homework and reading help. Volunteers are in a frenzy assembling shopping lists for a trip to get toilet paper and other necessities for people in need. Downstairs, the senior classroom is animated with the latest Bible study, “Soul Food,” as Mims steps from room to room, pointing out the children’s zone, the boxing ring and the media lab, sharing stories about the garden outside where people learn to plant and grow vegetables.

“When I think about every phase it’s gone through, the Bethlehem Center has transitioned its services to be what the community needs,” said the Rev. Jane Jenkins, Bethlehem Center board member. “The outreach is unbelievable.”

“It’s the principle of reaping and sowing, literally and figuratively. We’re planting seeds every day with youth and watering them, knowing that one day those seeds will flourish and harvest,” Mims said, noting that everything they do is to give the people of the community a solid foundation they can count on. “Jesus said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my church.’ He didn’t say to build it on sand.”

Leveling the technology playing field

But it’s the technology aspect of what the center is bringing to its community that has Mims most excited. Mims, a mother herself, knows firsthand how schools are cultivating technology in the classroom to help students be better prepared for modern career needs. As director, she is doing her part to make sure the Bethlehem Center is able to meet those needs.

The local school district has a new program, Seven Ignites, through which the dis trict issues students iPads or Macbooks to enable better learning, but many Bethlehem Center students are far behind in the learning curve on how to use the technology.

“There are already barriers in place with kids reading below grade level, and we have an educational divide created with technology, too, that is widened because of the lack of access—or the lack of WiFi,” Mims said. “We’re going into a time when everything is technology.”

The challenge is leveling the playing field, she said.

One way to level the field is through a grant the Bethlehem Center recently received to get tablets of its own so area children can hone their skills.

Another way is through a novel project made possible through a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies public art grant. The grant is a citywide effort titled “Seeing Spartanburg in a New Light,” and it focuses on various communities across the city. The Bethlehem Center’s Highland neighborhood is one of the communities in the spotlight, and their public art project is a video village. For the video village (HighlandVideoVillage.com), the Spartanburg Art Museum and production company White Elephant Enterprises established a media lab in a room at the Bethlehem Center and interviewed residents about their neighborhood. The videos are projected every evening onto nearby vacant buildings for the community to see and celebrate.

Not only does the center get to keep the media lab, but when the project ends, it will get to keep equipment from the video village that will be converted into computers.

“Those 52 units will allow us to have a computer in each classroom for training, job skills, workshops and partnerships with community colleges,” Mims said.

Teachable moments

All of this ties in with what the Bethlehem Center is trying its best to establish—a strong foundation, particularly with youth. Staff and volunteers work hard to create and maintain a structured environment that emphasizes full-child care, including having a positive attitude and making good choices. Its afterschool program, S.O.A.R. (Students Obtaining Academic Readiness), is a yearlong, free, literacy-focused program for ages 5 to 13 offering homework help, reading enrichment, character education and extracurriculars like art and gardening.

“We have children who excel, but the majority have a lot of challenges, whether it’s their home life or behavior or academic—sometimes all three,” Mims said.

One girl often gets in trouble at school because she keeps falling asleep at her desk; her home is so troubled and noisy at night that the quiet of the classroom is the only time she can truly relax. Other children have issues like not having enough food to eat.

But at the Bethlehem Center, where they are nurtured and loved by staff and volunteers alike, they thrive. Seniors often mentor youth, teaching them etiquette and sewing; their creations are service projects that help Hospice patients and others in need, plus enable children to learn the value of giving selflessly.

Jenkins, a retired United Methodist pastor, said working with the children—seeing them smile and enjoy attention—is one of her greatest joys.

“It just touches me. You’ve got these grade-school kids just begging you to read to them or help them with their homework,” Jenkins said.

The older kids are just as eager. One of the biggest draws of the center right now is its brand new boxing program. Mims said it might not seem on the surface like a good idea to put kids already struggling with anger issues in a boxing ring with gloves on, but she said the program teaches valuable lessons about anger management, working hard and training right. The program is led by coach Roderick Thompson, an ex-professional boxer who focuses as much on what he calls the six pillars of character—trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship—as on the sport itself. Boxing trainees learn the fundamentals in the ring, then spend weekends at competition matches to see the fruits of their labor. The program also serves as an incentive for academic performance; students must have at least a 2.7 grade point average to compete.

Thompson said unlike the team sports of football and basketball, “Boxing is one-on-one, so if you put in good effort, you get good results. If you train hard, you see results easily.”

That provides plenty of teachable moments for the kids at the center, Mims said, with lots of natural tie-ins with academics and other themes.

And at the end of the day, that’s what it is all about: tying in basic values with academic, behavioral and economic success while building a community that can be proud of itself and be all God wants it to be.

“It means a lot to people,” said Denise Taylor, the center’s director of outreach and volunteer services. “The Bethlehem Center has been a lifesaver.”

Mims looks to Scripture for guidance “We’re putting Matthew 25:40, caring for the least of these, into action and serving as a beacon of light and hope for the people of this community in all we do.” Mims said.


Jessica Brodie is the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.

Posted or updated: 6/2/2017 12:00:00 AM
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