To instill hope through healing is the goal of the Holy Child Program. By providing education and opportunity to those in need in the Holy Land, this program strives to change the lives of students and families in the immediate community, allowing the work to change the whole region.
Q. How did the program begin?
The Holy Child Program originally began in 1995 under the auspices of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, who at the time were running a counseling program in Bethlehem under the Latin Patriarch. The First Intifada (the first Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1987) had just ended, and there were a lot of children and families with post-traumatic stress. Nothing existed to address this kind of trauma, so the parents in the region asked the sisters to establish a school for their children.
Q. What is the mission of the Holy Child Program?
In an area where it’s difficult to be hopeful, the mission of the Holy Child Program is to instill hope through healing. That is our slogan. When you are hopeful you have the opportunity to begin healing, and that’s really the first step. We work with families with children who have severe emotional behavioral problems that have resulted in problems at home, problems at school, and problems in the community. We look at this program as being similar to St. Francis kissing the leper, because these children are considered outcasts in their society.
Through our program, they have the opportunity to become powerful and positive members of society. The Holy Child Program provides educational and therapeutic programs for children and families. Our goal is to give them the skills to manage emotions and problems successfully. We have a 93 percent success rate. We measure success by how many of our graduates are working in the community, continuing education, or in a vocational program.
How does the program operate?
We have 30 students, five in each classroom. Each child has his or her own individualized curriculum. We have to cover certain topics, but the learning activities are based on the child’s abilities. Every week the teacher writes new lesson plans specific to each child. The plans are then adjusted to help them proceed and grow.
Each classroom has mixed ages; the groups are based on maturity level and the composition of temperaments.
Our programs are multi-sensory. For example, the children learn math and science by actually planting a garden. They discuss the science of growth and mathematics by looking at the cost of seeds and the price of produce. The students sell their produce and are able to earn an allowance for themselves.
We also offer therapeutic activities such as equine therapy. One of the families in the region raises Arabian horses, and we bring kids out there to ride regularly. We do field trips whenever possible to expand their horizons.
Our social skills curriculum, called “The Incredible Years,” is geared toward children with emotional and behavioral needs.
How did you decide on using The Incredible Years program?
When we first came to this region, we discovered there was a lack of training in special education and behavior management techniques. With 30 behaviorally disturbed children, our concern was how the teachers would be able to minister to them. We wanted to find a program that had been researched and proven to be effective with handling emotional issues. The Incredible Years program had 30 years of clinical research behind it and had been designated a model program by the U.S. government.
The other great advantage was not only did it have a social skills program for the classroom, it also had a teacher training program and a parent program.
We went with this program because when we take a child into the program we don’t just take the child; we admit the whole family. There’s no way we can work with children for 36 hours a week and then have them go home to an uncooperative environment. In order for change to be sustained, the whole family needs to grow together and learn new skills.
When we implemented the program, the parenting group was especially successful. We started with about 12 to 15 parents, and it just kept growing. We run three mothers’ groups a week and we have a waiting list for two more groups. Since we don’t have the physical space to take more than 30 kids and there are a lot of families in need, we invite everybody on our waiting list to attend the group. We offer this free of charge.
In what ways could the program expand in the future?
In terms of expanding the program, we are in the process of working with a Palestinian university in the north. They have requested that we come and provide training for them. They have an autism clinic, and it appears they will have autism parenting groups. Ultimately we would love to be able to train more teachers and work with more parents—it’s just a matter of space. We would love to be able to buy the property and the buildings that we rent, and then we could add more classrooms.
How does supporting Holy Child Program help to bring peace in the Holy Land?
We have the opportunity to make an incredibly positive impact in this region. We are empowering people and encouraging them to find peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. One of the big issues is that this culture is very dependent upon outside aid, and this program really focuses on empowering the individual student and his or her families.
Mothers of children with emotional issues were originally considered incompetent. But now the other mothers come to the mothers of our students for help. It has a ripple effect that is very organic and sustainable and continues to grow on its own. We’re not talking about peace on a global level, but rather in the neighborhood, the village, the community. It continues to grow on its own from there.
It’s an organic growth that fosters positive relations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The knowledge they gain from the program will improve the quality of life for them, and perhaps in the future there will not be so much military action in that region.
The population we serve is the most vulnerable. We are dedicated to helping these children and their families realize they can be positive contributing members of society. At an organic level, we are promoting a culture of positive opportunities rather than one of dead-ends.
How can someone get involved?
We have been blessed by generous donors and grants. We do whatever we can to be financially responsible on our end, but the bottom line is that we depend on individual donors and charitable organizations to help keep the school running. We do a lot of praying every month, and it’s been great so far.
In memory of Judith Joanna Barillaro (pictured), who was a member of the Board of Directors and the Speech Consultant of the Bethlehem Holy Child Program since 2008. She entered eternal life May 3, 2015.