Hope Is Born in Bethlehem Centers

Hope Is Born in Bethlehem Centers
Children learn and play in safety at Bethlehem Centers' child care programs in Nashville, Tenn.

Bethlehem Centers is not only important for the community of North Nashville; it’s  an important part of U.S. race relations history. It was founded in 1894 when Sallie Hill Sawyer, a black woman, and Estelle Haskins, who was white, joined forces to start a settlement house for women and children.

The center has evolved over some 118 years to offer services, including a three-star early-childhood education program, an after-school program, a seniors care program, and it facilitates the local Meals on Wheels program. The century-old objective set forth by those extraordinary women remains the same.

“Our mantra, our battle cry is social justice,” said Mary McKinney, president and chief executive officer of Bethlehem Centers. “The focus of Bethlehem Centers is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.”

This is no small task. Bethlehem Centers sits directly across from the John Henry Hale public housing community in North Nashville, Davis County. “According to the most recent census, North Nashville is the poorest area in the state of Tennessee, having the highest crime rate, particularly violent crime,” Ms. McKinney said. “We know the ticket out [of poverty] is education.” 

Teaching children, shaping the future

“Teaching is not a job. It’s a calling,” said Robert Hassel, who teaches 2 ½ to 3-year-olds in Bethlehem Centers’ Busy Bees program. “I’m not simply teaching rote skills, I’m preparing citizens and future members of society. I’m not only shaping minds, I’m shaping hearts.”

One of the people behind the scenes working hard to provide support for Mr. Hassel and the other staff members is Rachel Parker, director of early childhood education. “My job entails making sure that the childhood center runs smoothly, that we’re educating our children, caring for them, keeping them safe, as well as making sure we’re well staffed and that everyone’s needs are met.”

Ms. Parker is proud of her child-care center’s three-star rating — the highest assessment from Tennessee — which acknowledges the center’s strict adherence to state guidelines regarding low child-to-teacher ratios and maintaining a clean and healthy environment in the facilities. “It denotes that we have devoted our utmost to our child care center,” Ms. Parker said. “There are many child care centers that offer zero or one-star child care, so it is important that we provide affordable three-star child care in this community.”

Parents often discover the center and all it has to offer by chance when they bring their young children to Bethlehem to get immunization shots. And when the children are too old to attend the child care program, the after-school program is waiting for them. 

Passing the torch

Bethlehem Centers’ after-school program has saved lives. California transplant Thriashaun Stephens, 19, is an example.

“My mom didn’t have a stable job, and we didn’t have a stable living environment,” Mr. Stephens said, recalling the fork in the road he faced when his family relocated to Tennessee and life turned upside down. “We moved seven or ten times in one year. We’d adapt to a place, I’d meet friends, but I couldn’t get close to them because I knew we’d move.”

Bethlehem Centers provided some of the stability Mr. Stephens needed even after his family secured a more permanent home in Nashville’s John Henry Hale public housing. As he grew older, he witnessed too many of his friends slip into drug and alcohol abuse or other destructive life paths. It was his mother who had the foresight to enroll him into the after-school program along with his siblings.

“At first I thought this was just a new place where my mother could get rid of us, and I thought I wasn’t going to like it. But when I arrived everyone was open, and we had year-round activities,” Mr. Stephens said. He participated in the program five days a week from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. “It kept me busy after school instead of hanging out like the rest of my friends.”

One of Mr. Stephens’ closest friends lived next door, and, like him, came from a large family.

“He was just like me,” Mr. Stephens said. “His stepfather and mother welcomed us to the community. He attended Bethlehem Centers like me, but he didn’t love it. And the older we got, I started seeing a change in him. He started hanging out on the street. He wasn’t into school and education and the things I was into. One day I was heading to the center and asked him if he was coming. He said no and went to hang out with friends I told him weren’t good for him. They went to another part of town and got into an altercation with another gang. The other gang shot at the car, and my friend was the only person who got hit. He got shot in the head. He died minutes later.”

One of the integral components of the after-school program is mentorship. “Growing up I didn’t have a father. It was just my mother and my siblings, but Mr. Flemming brought me in and sheltered me like I was his own son,” Mr. Stephens said. “He taught me how to be a good person, and that education was the key to success.”   

Steve Flemming, 40, director of Bethlehem’s Family Resource Center and youth programs, has been affiliated with the mission institution for three decades. Like Mr. Stephens, Mr. Flemming also grew up in John Henry Hale public housing surrounded by the same challenges, and he witnessed similar tragedies. “There were all kinds of temptations in our community. Whether you saw someone on the street corner selling drugs or a big dice game going on in the middle of the neighborhood, you were always tempted to take part,” he said.

Mr. Flemming started coming to Bethlehem Centers at the age of 5. “I felt safe. I felt I was with people I could trust,” he said. At 14, he was offered his first job. “My mother worked a couple of jobs to make ends meet. We didn’t have the material things, but we had the necessities. When I turned 14, I was able to pay for my own clothes and lifted that burden from my mother.”

When it was time for higher education, Bethlehem Centers helped him secure four scholarships so he could attend Wilberforce University, the nation’s oldest historically African American college, in Wilberforce, Ohio. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in child psychology and social services — then returned to Bethlehem Centers to give back to the place that had given him so much.

Leading by example, Mr. Flemming instills in the youth the absolute importance of an education. He glows when speaking of Devon Porter, 14, a ninth grader in the program. “Devon is a product of John Henry Hale community and is a product of the Say Yes to Success after-school program for the past three years,” Mr. Flemming said. “Currently, he’s an honor roll student, a go-getter who strives hard and puts a lot of energy and effort into everything he does. And as long as he stays focused and stays in positive partnership with people, I know he will continue to be one of our true victories.”

But the victorious rarely succeed without help. “During my senior year of high school it was hard to get scholarship money,” Mr. Stephens said. “Mr. Flemming was able to get me a scholarship through Bethlehem Centers. He wrote a great letter of recommendation for me, and I now attend Tennessee State University.”

When Mr. Flemming was a teen, he too found a positive role model at the center who imparted the same values and principles. John Robert Anderson, 52, did for Mr. Flemming what he is now doing for Mr. Stephens, Devon and many other young people in the community.

“John Anderson is a unique guy,” said Mr. Flemming. “We grew up in the same community. A big brother, he led by example. He exhibited great Christian morals and values. We clicked because of the things we have in common.”

Mr. Anderson now serves on the centers’ board of trustees, but he remembers clearly the time he spent in the center as a youth. “Bethlehem Centers was where you escaped to so others couldn’t find you,” he said. “When you grow up in a housing project you get associated with a gang of guys. People expect you to be 20 to 30 people deep. So you’d come here to get away.” 

Meeting students from the local university who came to volunteer and mentor youth at Bethlehem Centers changed Mr. Anderson’s life, he says. “One of the students said that you could be poor and still go to college. Once I found that out, it helped me figure out my life. I wanted to be a positive statistic for my neighborhood,” he said.

Mr. Anderson now has a master’s degree and is continuing his education. “Graduating with a 3.8 GPA and being from the ‘hood is unheard of,” he laughed. “Now I’m working on my doctorate degree in health care management simply to come back here and get the right information to the people.”

Mr. Anderson smiles when talking about Mr. Flemming. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Just a handful of us got out. Some of the guys we grew up with never got out of Tennessee. I’ve got friends I send money to who are incarcerated, friends whose funerals I’ve attended.”

And what does Mr. Stephens want to do when he finishes his degree at Tennessee State? “I want to come back to Bethlehem Centers and hopefully take Mr. Steve’s place,” he laughed.

Posted or updated: 11/30/2012 11:00:00 PM
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