response: July/August 2021

Lifelong Support

The Bethlehem Centers of Nashville, Tennessee, 
help people “from womb to tomb.”

Lifelong Support
Nita Wright with a student at Bethlehem Centers. Wright is president of the Tennessee Conference UMW and on the center’s board of directors.

When Steve Fleming, chief executive officer of Bethlehem Centers of Nashville, began coming to the center for immunizations at the age of 4, it was the beginning of a lifelong relationship.

Fleming’s mother sent him first to the center’s child care, then its afterschool programs, then he began volunteering. His first paid opportunity came at age 14.

“The Lord aligned my stars perfectly,” he said. “I knew this would be something I wanted to do for a living.”

Other than his time at college—for which Bethlehem Centers secured him a full scholarship—he’s never really left. After a year as interim director, he became the permanent director in 2014.

Fleming’s experience is not unique. It’s part of what he calls the center’s “womb-to-tomb” mission.

The long list of programs the centers offer include child care, afterschool and teaching programs for kindergarten through 10th grade; summer vocational programs; recreation and life skills development; and an array of activities for seniors, community outreach projects and Meals on Wheels deliveries.

“We serve some complete family units,” Fleming said. “Grandma comes to senior services, Mom may utilize family resources and their kids may get child care or summer work programs for teens.”

Making a difference

The North Nashville neighborhood Bethlehem Centers serve has among the highest levels of both poverty and incarceration in the United States.

A report generated by a municipal committee considering ways to help cited the need for community resource centers and youth development among its top priorities.

Programs such as Bethlehem Centers’ Vocational Success Institute aim to reach young teens at an age where they may be susceptible to making choices that could derail their future.

Malachi Carey, 16, joined the program at 14, working in the kitchen for Meals on Wheels, serving as a front desk greeter and helping with children. This summer he’s working in the campus community garden.

“This place helped me a lot. I used to do bad stuff, used to steal. They helped me grow, got me working to earn my own money so I didn’t need to steal,” he said.

Carey pointed to the troubling elements in his neighborhood, like gangs and shootings.

“This place is a different environment; it pulls you away from all that and teaches you to overcome it,” he said.

“I came from that neighborhood, so I know,” Fleming said. “I saw Malachi’s journey, and I’m super proud of where he is. He has so much potential.”

Carey said that in the future, he’d like to work with kids and “help them like Mr. Steve helped me.”

Janet Reyes is another Bethlehem Centers “alumna,” who began participating in children’s programs when she was 5. Now she’s a staff youth specialist who helps tutor the kids.

“I’ve been in their shoes, and I love to motivate them, see the smiles on their faces every morning and be an impact on their lives,” she said.

Cat Beach also comes to Bethlehem Centers with a smile on her face every morning. She prepares food for the Meals on Wheels program, which serves up to 216 meals five days a week.

Beach was previously a restaurant chef and ran a catering business, but two knee surgeries made it difficult to keep up with the physical demands and long hours. She began as a volunteer at the centers two years ago and is now on staff.

“They enable me to do what I love to do, and this makes a difference in my life as well,” she said. “It’s a blessing to give back to the community and seniors.”

Beach’s mother relied on meal delivery during an illness, so she has a personal connection to Meals on Wheels. She said that she worried about how seniors were being fed once the coronavirus pandemic began.

“This might be their only hot meal of the day, so we try to make sure they can count on a nutritious meal,” she said.

Another thing the Meals on Wheels recipients can count on every day is a visit from Roy Reed, who has been a delivery driver for Bethlehem Centers since 1996.

Not content to just drop off the meals, Reed stays and talks, takes out trash, may pick up groceries or take mail to the post office.

“Roy is the man!” said senior programs director Yolanda Thompson. “A lot of the seniors don’t have family, and we can be a friendly face they see every day. When he’s not there, they miss him.”

Over the years, he’s built close relationships with those he serves. Longtime recipient Veronica Lillard has a bottled water waiting for Reed every day.

“That’s my buddy right there,” he said.

At one house, he learned that a woman’s husband had just passed away. He sat in the car and wiped away tears before heading to his next stop.

“I’ve known him 22 years, seen him every day. It’s just a shock,” he said.

When he was in the 10th grade, Reed was part of the center’s Say Yes to Success program, which guides middle-school students in making positive life choices and developing goals for promising futures.

“The program kept my head on straight,” he said. “I grew up in a single-parent home without a father, and Mr. Steve is like a father to me. No Steve, no me.”

Womb to tomb

Perhaps no one better exhibits the “womb-to-tomb” mission than Yvonne Franklin. In fact, if not for Bethlehem Centers, she might not even have been born: Her parents met there as children.

She also met her husband when he was serving as a counselor at a camp where Bethlehem Centers held summer programs.

Franklin, 69, retired in 2013 and served as a caregiver for her sister. After her sister’s passing, Franklin said she was “just sitting at home all day depressed” until someone recommended Bethlehem Centers’ Silver and Gold Senior Club.

“It’s been a blessing. Bethlehem Centers was the only thing around here when I was growing up, so I found I already knew half the people here anyway,” she said.

Seniors enjoy a variety of activities, from art projects and field trips to fitness programs and volunteer opportunities. Volunteers also come to help advise participants with issues like legal aid or navigating their tech devices.

Franklin said her favorites are the monthly Bible study and going to the movies, which she hopes to resume soon.

The senior club met three times per week until COVID-19 risks forced a pause. It was the only program that had to stop during the height of the pandemic, though virtual casework and ensuring they had basic necessities continued.

“For all our programs, we maintained normalcy the best we could. We didn’t close our doors,” Fleming said.

The United Methodist Women legacy

Bethlehem Centers are celebrating its 127th year, growing out of a partnership between two women, Sallie Hill Sawyer and Estelle Haskins, who sought to impact the lives of others and provide essential services for the working poor.

A national mission institution supported by United Methodist Women, it is one of approximately 90 funded by the agency. Located throughout the United States, they are ministries with the poor, communities, families and all age groups.

“We have a biblical mandate to serve our neighbor and take care of the least of these,” said Nita Wright, president of the Tennessee Conference United Methodist Women. “It’s not a suggestion or even a request. It’s the United Methodist Women legacy.”

Wright, who also serves on the Bethlehem Centers board, said the highlight of her year is the annual Thanksgiving dinner that United Methodist Women hosts there. In years past, over 300 people were served. Unfortunately, the 2020 dinner had to be canceled due to COVID-19, but Wright hopes they’ll be able to do it again this year.

“It’s a family reunion every year. We serve, but we’re the ones who receive the blessing,” she said.

Shelley Handy, a United Methodist Women member of McKendree United Methodist Church in Nashville, said she came to Bethlehem Centers as a kid and has a bond with the place that keeps bringing her back.

“It takes everyone to raise a child, and it’s so fulfilling to help someone else,” she said, describing the outreach as “what Jesus intended us to do.”

“The staff is exceptional—you can see the love they have for this institution and for all those who come here,” Wright said. “It’s special that they have had such a positive experience that they want to come back and pay it forward for others.”Global Ministries

Joey Butler is a multimedia editor and producer for United Methodist News in Nashville, Tennessee.

Posted or updated: 7/1/2021 12:00:00 AM

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