‘Why not just start your own learning hub?’
It’s one thing to watch the heartbreaking plight of new immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers unfold on the evening news.
It’s quite another to meet Lissy H. in person.
In the fall of 2019, the young Honduran arrived in the U.S. at the vulnerable age of 14, having dropped out of school to seek asylum with her father. New to both the U.S. educational system and the English language all at once, Lissy enrolled at Louisville’s English as a Second Language Newcomer Academy, which she attended for scarcely six months before COVID-19 drove most schools into full-time virtual learning.
Although she was issued a Chromebook and had access to an internet hotspot during the county-wide move to nontraditional instruction, Lissy was all but lost for some seven months.
Lost, that is, until the Learning Hub at Beechmont Presbyterian Church in Louisville found her.
“COVID-19 had such intense implications for vulnerable populations like new immigrants,” said the Rev. Debbie Braaksma, a recently retired PC(USA) mission worker who attends Beechmont. “We were hearing about it from Pastor Elmer Zavala, himself a native of Honduras, who worships at Beechmont. We learned that the recent immigrants with unusual work schedules and limited English skills often couldn’t work with their kids on non-traditional instruction.”
Zavala, a member of the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky, serves as pastor and leader of the Presbyterian Hispanic Latino Ministry of Preston Highway, a “house church” south of Louisville composed of some 40 families, many of whom also attend Beechmont.
“On Sunday morning, we were hearing all about the challenges faced by new immigrants here, especially the stigmatization and the fact that they are not being protected by labor laws,” said Braaksma. “We were hearing from Elmer and [his wife] Ellen [Sherby] about how COVID affected these kids.”
Addressing the needs of such at-risk children is what the Pentecost Offering — one of the PC(USA)’s four Special Offerings — is all about. Not only do gifts to the Pentecost Offering benefit children at risk through the “Educate a Child, Transform the World” national initiative, but the offering also encourages, develops and supports the church’s young people through the Young Adult Volunteer program and the Presbyterian Youth and Triennium.
Forty percent of the Pentecost Offering is retained by individual congregations like Beechmont for local ministries such as the Learning Hub, while the remaining 60% is used to support children at risk, youth and young adults through ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
Although the Pentecost Offering may be taken anytime, most congregations receive it on Pentecost Sunday, which this year falls on June 5.
As Braaksma considered how Beechmont might respond to the educational crisis exacerbated by COVID-19, she heard about a local organization that was hosting a learning hub, a site where students could gather safely during the pandemic for physical and virtual support from volunteer educators and counselors as well as their peers.
“When I reached out to the nonprofit to ask whether the school-aged members of the Preston Highway Latino Ministry could join their hub,” recalled Braaksma, “the organization asked me, ‘Why not just start your own learning hub?’”
One reason “why not” might easily have been the church’s small size. Yet for Braaksma, new ruling elder Sarah Hong, and Beechmont’s part-time pastor, the Rev. Marissa Galván-Valle, the congregation’s membership was never an obstacle.
“What’s a good image for God’s kingdom?” asked Galván-Valle. “Is it a megachurch? Is it a church with one, two or three pastors? No, it is a mustard seed, a small mustard seed that grows into a bush that gives the birds a place to nest in its shade. That is why I think that Beechmont and other churches like it are not small. They are mighty and full of possibilities to build the kingdom of God. We have the things we need to impact the community and to do the work that God wants us to do, like provide a learning hub for those who have fallen through the cracks of the educational system.”
Even so, according to Braaksma, “For a church of about 60 members, it was a very brave thing for us to take on.”
Although retired and seeking “a place to put her energy,” because Braaksma and her husband Del, who is also a retired mission worker, travel often to visit family, she knew that the Learning Hub required a consistent presence.
Hong was all that and more.
“The level of involvement that Sarah provides is extraordinary,” Braaksma said. “She would spend hours and hours doing the heavy lifting. She did all the background legwork and liaised behind the scenes with Jefferson County Public Schools. She is incredible.”
Hong said that since many of these families arrived only months before COVID-19 struck, the children didn’t even have a full school year before they had to start nontraditional instruction. “They are also moving a lot and changing phone numbers, which meant that the schools couldn’t contact them easily,” she added. “Even if they wanted to check in, they couldn’t. We found that we could become that liaison with the school for those parents and families who were intimidated by it.”
Many of the parents, like Lissy’s father, have little to no formal education. “They all work so hard,” said Galván-Valle. “They endured hunger and thirst to make their lives better. But because education wasn’t part of their own development, how do you communicate to them the need for their kids to finish high school?”
Despite such challenges, Beechmont saw the Learning Hub as an essential service. “While the church felt that it was risky,” said Braaksma, “we had no choice but to respond to these kids.”
With the support of Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) and Evolve502, which describes itself as “a community-focused organization helping every JCPS student pursue the dream of a college education,” Beechmont launched the Learning Hub in January 2021, at the height of the red zone for COVID-19.
From January through May 2021, the church ran a full-time, seven hours a day, five days a week, trauma-informed instructional program, which also provided psychosocial support, for 10 immigrant children. The full-time program continued through the summer of 2021 when it expanded to serve 18 children.
Today the Beechmont Learning Hub operates as an after-school program serving 21 immigrant children.
“The hope is to have the program continue to serve these families with or without COVID,” said Hong. “We’re building a community for families that need extra support when it comes to the educational system.”
That’s part of what it means to Hong — and to all of Beechmont — to be a Matthew 25 congregation.
“The Learning Hub furthers the goals of the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation by addressing the intersectional relationship between poverty eradication and congregational vitality,” said the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People at the Presbyterian Mission Agency and staff person for the PC(USA)’s Educate a Child, Transform the World initiative. “Education and child advocacy are crucial in addressing poverty, especially as we work to make sure communities have access to and senses of self-determination. The Learning Hub is the church’s very intentional way to address the economic inequities that face immigrant and poor children.”
In the midst of the COVID desert, Lissy has blossomed.
“Lissy was so quiet at first, with not much confidence,” Braaksma said. “I have since seen a huge change in her. She loves music and art and wants to go on to study further. One of the good things that JCPS did wisely is that if a parent wants their child to repeat a grade, there is no stigma. This is the kind of accompaniment that we do: We spend time with each family. They wanted our guidance. It was a gift.”
For Lissy, the gift kept on giving. Because she had turned 16 during the pandemic, she wasn’t able to celebrate her “quinceañera,” a 15th birthday tradition throughout Latin America, which marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. In October 2021, the Rev. Mary Nebelsick, a former mission worker now employed by the Presbyterian Mission Agency, arranged for Lissy to have a special party with family and friends at Mid-Kentucky Presbytery’s Cedar Ridge Camp.
“The children who are immigrants,” said Galván-Valle, “they are the ones that don’t ask for much. Churches are more geared to serve adults, while children and youth are often ignored. When I went as a young leader to the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, I saw the impact that the church can have on kids who are otherwise invisible. We see them become fully alive. For us at Beechmont, it’s important to contribute to the Pentecost Offering — not just at the national level, but so that each child can become more fully alive as a young person in their church and community.”
This was published for Presbyterian News Service on May 10, 2022.
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