Response: July/August 2017 Issue

Support for a Changing Community

Bethlehem Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, plays a crucial role in the well-being of its community.

Support for a Changing Community
Teacher Juaren Booth spends time drawing with children in Head Start at the Stephanie Jennings Center that is part of the Bethlehem Center.

Just south of uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, the Bethlehem Center, founded by United Methodist Women predecessors in 1940, has been a beacon of hope for families in poverty. Currently located between two affordable housing communities, the Bethlehem Center exists to provide educational opportunities for low-income families to improve the quality of their lives. The center is known for providing one of Charlotte’s first free kindergarten programs and has since expanded its services to include children from birth through college graduation.

The Bethlehem Center, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution, provides a caring, Christ-centered environment where children can learn, grow and thrive. The educational support offered is top notch, but equally important are the emotional and spiritual support the children receive. From family-style meals for preschoolers and summer sleepaway camp for school-aged kids to college scholarship programs for students who have graduated from the school-age program, this isn’t your ordinary day care or after-school program.

“Anytime the children in this community are out of school, we’re in,” says Director of Operations Jared Keaton.

A day at Bethlehem Center

A day in the life of the Bethlehem Center is busy, sometimes even chaotic, and filled with learning and laughter. Collectively, this campus serves around 170 students pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The preschoolers arrive at 9 a.m. To help them transition into the school day, the children start off with free-choice in center time. The various center options are designed with activities integrated with the lesson plans for the day. Then it’s time for breakfast.

“All meals in our programs are family style. Through that we want, first, to build the expectations of the importance of sharing a meal and not just plopping down in front of the TV to eat,” said Keaton. “But also it’s an opportunity to have conversations in a more relaxed and natural way. We’re able to ask what they did last night and how their day was. The teachers get an opportunity to learn more about the students, and the students are able to interact with one another and with the teacher in a way they may not be able to at home.”

Then it’s into a set of small group activities and followed by time on the small on-site playground. Next is lunch and large group time, which is usually a classroom-wide read-aloud time, followed by a rest period.

“They’re wrapping up around three, and the school-aged children are just getting started. The older kids start with a self-affirmation. We have gospel music that we play that has messages directed toward reminding them that they are loved, that God loves them, that we love them, and that they are unique,” said Keaton.

The older students also have free-choice center time, when at least three centers a day are open.

“They may choose science, writing, games, computer or art. Art is always a big one,” said Yolanda Bynum, director of the Out-Of-School Time program. “They also have a reading time, 30 minutes a day, as part of homework time.”

“All of our staff members are degreed so they are able to help them, but we also have subject-specific tutors come in and assist them as well,” said Keaton.

Ties with the community

Bynum joined the team about a year and a half ago, bringing with her 20 years of youth development work.

“It was not just the mission and vision of this organization but also the location. I have strong ties in this community already from work that I did back in 2005. So, for me, it was connecting with an organization here that I knew could have such a huge impact on children and families.”

A 2014 study ranked Charlotte last among the country’s 50 largest cities for upward mobility, meaning it is harder to climb out of poverty here than in any other major U.S. metro area. The odds of moving up in Charlotte are just 4.4 percent. The Bethlehem Center is working to give some of Charlotte’s most at-risk kids a chance for success.

Encompassing two low-income housing developments, Brookhill and Southside, this community has seen a lot of change over the years, some for the better and some for the worse.

“When I got here, this was a tumultuous neighborhood,” said Keaton, who has worked with the Bethlehem Center for 18 years. “At least once a week, there were gunshots. It was a very crowded, busy neighborhood. There was infrequent but consistent violence in the neighborhood. But that has changed tremendously. Southside has really stepped up in terms of engaging the community to make more of a neighborhood feel and giving the residents leadership in that. Four years ago, they started a program called Jobs Plus, which is helping families actually exit the housing authority homes in a coordinated effort. Bringing together job training, soft skills training, family development and child care, which we are part of, Southside has really evolved. The center has become a vital part of that.”

This is a community in transition, located on the edge of a popular developing neighborhood but thus far untouched by gentrification happening nearby. Southside is a public housing community, run by the Charlotte Housing Authority, with no plans to redevelop. But Brookhill’s situation is more complex

“One of the things that has really impacted us negatively is the transition with Brookhill,” said Keaton.

Brookhill is privately owned, which leaves residents with less protection, and the long-term talk of redevelopment has become more of possibility. Between recent evictions and demolition of some buildings, the impact has been immediate on the Bethlehem Center and families they serve.

“Uptown is moving closer,” said Bynum of the neighborhood almost in the shadows of the skyscrapers downtown. She points to a photo of the Charlotte skyline hanging on her wall. “When I took this picture when I first arrived, I thought it was beautiful with the sun hitting the buildings and you can see the rooftops of the apartments in Brookhill at the bottom. Now they’re not there anymore.

“We’ve seen about 20 percent of our students displaced. A lot of them were unable to afford the increase in fees to live there, and then they were displaced when they started to tear down and shift the dynamics. What we’re finding is that they’re not able to go out and secure other housing.”

Many are moving in with relatives in other parts of the city or to smaller towns elsewhere in the state. Some are still trying to maintain the relationship with the Bethlehem Center, including a family with five children staying with relatives across town.

“This particular family is struggling with transportation, but they still want to be part of this program, so we’re trying to be creative with ways to keep them engaged,” Bynum said. “That’s part of who we are. We are here to serve families. It’s not just numbers for us.”


United Methodist Women support

United Methodist Women members continue to support this vital work through their funds, time and service. President of the Metro District United Methodist Women Michelene Mathews has made it a point to not only actively participate in the ministry but also to educate the rest of the district on the Bethlehem Center and the work they do.

“As I have served on the board, I have met adults who have benefited from the services the center has provided, and I volunteer at the main campus to read to the children whenever I have the chance,” she said

“She is very passionate about this work and has led the charge in getting people reacquainted with the center,” Keaton said. “Michelene and the United Methodist Women have been tremendous advocates.”

Many United Methodist Women units have special programs to raise funds and needed items. When the center launched a new program serving infants and toddlers, local United Methodist Women collected more than 3,000 diapers and twice as many wipes to welcome these new children to the Bethlehem Center family.

“Those parents came into the program with a 90-day supply of diapers and wipes thanks to the generosity of the United Methodist Women,” said Keaton.

“The center provides help to women, children and youth in our community and will always be an important part of our mission work in the Metro District,” said Mathews.

The United Methodist Women’s biggest engagement with the Bethlehem Center is through summer camp. Traditionally, United Methodist Women members have sponsored the summer experiences for all school-aged children, including resident camp at Asbury Hills, a Methodist-run camp in South Carolina. The Bethlehem Center staff co-facilitates the camp with Asbury Hills staff.

“They do a lot of the outdoor activities like rock climbing and archery, and our staff does the enrichment programming. It’s a great experience for these urban kids to get out in nature. Most of them haven’t been outside of our county,” said Keaton.

Through their work with the Bethlehem Center, United Methodist Women in Charlotte and Western North Carolina are living into the United Methodist Women vision: faith, hope and love in action.

Melissa McGill is assistant director of communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Posted or updated: 6/30/2017 12:00:00 AM