In Bethlehem, These Modern-Day Shepherds Are Tending a Flock of Children Who Need God’s Mercy — and Your Help
The program in Beit Sahour was founded by the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist to help children who suffer from untreated complex mental-health issues and experiences of intergenerational trauma.
Amid the turmoil and war between Israel and Hamas, the Holy Child Program in the West Bank stands out as a model of help for both Christian and Muslim children and their families.
Slightly less than 2 miles from Bethlehem and 6 miles from Jerusalem, the program in Beit Sahour was founded by the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist — who are based 5,613 miles away in Meriden, Connecticut — to help children who suffer from untreated complex mental-health issues and experiences of intergenerational trauma. It is the only therapeutic and alternative education program in the West Bank. (They run the Franciscan Life Center, a counseling service, too, onsite in Connecticut).
“Almost 95% of the children, who range from 5 to 15 years old, come through our program and upon graduation either continue their education in government or private schools or enroll in special education or vocational programs. Some, if they are old enough, get a job,” Francis Barillaro, vice president and treasurer of the Bethlehem Holy Child Program, told the Register. “We take kids who are often shunned because of their disabilities, and they are now able to go home and support themselves or help support their families. We bring some stability to them and their family and their community.”
The Holy Child Program began in 1996, when a client of the Franciscan sisters, who were counselors, asked for help with her teenage son’s behavior. The sisters developed a program for the boy and worked with him and his family. Then there were more and more children affected by the Intifada — Palestinian armed incursions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip meant to end Israel’s presence in those territories and aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state — who “were just really having a terrible time,” explained Mother Shaun Vergauwen, co-foundress of the congregation. “They were anxious and disturbed. They couldn’t be controlled at home and couldn’t go to school because of their problems. More parents asked the sisters to help. In addition to counseling, we started doing education on the side in order that they wouldn’t get so far behind. So the Holy Child Program started really quite simply. Then, as it grew, of course, the sisters had to get certified.” In fact, the Holy Child Program was certified and approved by the Palestinian Ministry of Education as an alternative education program.
Holy Child Grows
Then, in 2008, the sisters asked five lay affiliates of the Franciscan community, including Barillaro and his wife, Judith, to assume management of the program that was expanding as more and more people sought help. At the same time, the associates formed the Bethlehem Holy Child Program, a 501c(3) nonprofit corporation for the growing Holy Child Program. It quickly grew to include today’s 13 teachers with bachelor’s degrees — 12 Catholics and one Muslim — who have brought stability into the children’s lives. Two Franciscan sisters who live and work in Jerusalem continue to provide support to the program.
Mother Shaun pointed out that Iskander Khoury, the executive director and principal of the school, has been present since it was founded. He helped take care of that first teen who inspired this program.
The school’s facilities allow for 35 students at a time. They are Catholic and Muslim, split 50-50. Barillaro told the Register the program “provides a spiritual as well as emotional centering, which adds a different kind of dimension.” HCP is located in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem. “It is the largest remaining Christian population in the West Bank,” he said, “so we’ve become almost an anchor for the people who live in that area.”
The school also uses a program called “The Incredible Years,” “what we call an evidence-based program, with a set curriculum targeting social and emotion regulation skills as well as problem-solving and communication skills. Additionally, the teachers receive extensive training and coaching and the parents do too, ensuring that the parents learn the skills they need to be successful as well.”
At first, 35 children might not seem like a lot, but Barillaro emphasized that “it spreads far beyond that because we have parent groups that are an integral part of the program, especially the mothers’ groups. The parenting program is free not only to the HCP parents, but to any family in the community, especially families who we are unable to enroll in our program but need our services. So not only are we serving the families in our program, but their neighbors or relatives. Additionally, many mothers found attending the parenting program helped improve their marriages and family life as well as significantly reduced their stress levels.”
Mother Shaun added that this program initiates much discussion among the women about dealing with childrearing and familial problems, “which helps any marriage.”
In addition to serving the local community, the Holy Child Program has provided onsite training and consultation to other organizations. Most notable was a two-year project with An-Najah University in Nablus.
By law, all schools in Palestine are required to teach the Quran to Muslim students, regardless of whether it is a Catholic school or not. “So, while HCP is required to teach the principles of the Catholic faith and Islam separately, the students discuss with each other what they have learned in religion class every morning in general assembly, highlighting similar values and practices,” Barillaro explained. “HCP doesn’t focus on the differences. So, with these kids, there's no problem. They play together. They live together. And they’re their friends, Palestinians — Christians and Muslims.”
Culturally, families who had children with emotional or physical problems would often experience shame and a limitation of marriage prospects, as such difficulties were looked upon as God’s punishment.
But the Franciscan sisters’ program strives to end such misconceptions and highlight cross-cultural unity.
One example of cross-cultural cooperation at the Holy Child Program concerned a Palestinian Muslim boy who needed a kidney; he received one from a Jewish family whose child had died in an accident. Consequently, he had a difficult time at school, as many of his Muslim peers did not respect that he received lifesaving help from a Jewish boy.
As Barillaro explained, “A group of Israelis, who were friends of the deceased child’s family, contacted us and asked us to take the boy into our program. Because his parents didn’t have enough money for him to get transportation to the school, this same group of Israelis said they would pay for his transportation for three years; so, you have a Muslim boy coming to a Christian school and being supported by Israelis. In fact, one of the donors would regularly call the mother of the boy every two weeks to see how the family was doing.”
On a larger scale, the school has a field-trip program: With the help of Israeli advocates, visas are obtained for students and staff to enter Israel to visit the Israeli National Museum. “They don’t allow that unless they trust you,” Barillaro told the Register. “We’re one of the few who are even allowed to do so, or to receive visas to take our students to Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee and to the Netanya Safari Zoo. We have been extremely fortunate in being able to provide these experiences for our students. For some of them, this is the first time for them to see the ocean [the Mediterranean]. Inevitably, wherever we go, everyone comments on how well behaved our students are.”
With the current situation in Palestine, in the West Bank, with children and their parents living under lots of tension, “Our goal is to keep it as normal as possible for these kids and to have them come to school every day,” Barillaro said. “And we give them a hot meal every day.” And special activities are planned.
In October, with the annual celebration of olive picking in the West Bank, everyone participates. Because the children love hamburgers, the school had a barbecue “to relieve that tension that they live under all the time.”
School uniforms are a must. Barillaro said the children come to school well-dressed every day: “Everybody has a uniform. That’s part of building their self-respect.”
“Teaching them to come in clean, well-dressed — it’s so important to parents to make sure they do that,” added Mother Shaun, “[for] their children to be accepted.”
Visits, Support and Hope
Visitors can have far-reaching effects. Mother Barbara Johnson, vicar general of the Franciscan Sisters, said that sometimes when the school gets visitors such as from the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, teachers use the map to show the children where the people come from.
She told the Register, “One of the little kids said, ‘You mean you came all the way over here just to see me?’ So that is an experience of feeling like all these people who come to visit are caring for them or supporting them or loving them.”
Of course, it takes funds to run the Holy Family Program. While the school asks parents for only $1,000 (they are supported by generous donors, as most parents cannot afford the $1,000 tuition), it costs $6,000 a year to educate one child. “We’ve been dependent a lot on pilgrims who, because we’re near the Shepherds’ Field, come to see our school,” Barillaro said. He gave the example of the reaction of a tourist who visited the school, a woman who sent a donation with a note that read, “When I went to the Holy Child Program and saw those kids with their teachers, that’s when I saw the face of God; I saw the face of Christ.”
Right now, the school leadership is hoping to purchase the building where the school currently rents space. To date, Bethlehem Holy Child Program has raised approximately half of the asking price.
Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, agreed to register the property in the name of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The protection of the local Church provides added security, in terms of holding title to the property.
Ownership is highly important for several reasons.
“You can get grants if you own the building,” said Mother Shaun. It would make available the full building’s space to expand services with more classrooms in order to help more children, plus meeting spaces for parent groups and counseling offices. More space means “we can certainly expand our training programs,” Mother Shaun said.
“Large organizations like Bethlehem Hospital are asking us to help them implement the program,” Barillaro said. Plus, there is already a relationship with Bethlehem University and An-Najah University in Nablus to incorporate teaching the HCP’s tried-and-true program. He pointed out the program is internationally accredited.
Exceptionally important is that “we are an anchor for Christians in that area, and owning the building adds to that because we’re permanent,” Barillaro emphasized.
“It means we’re going to stay with them,” Mother Shaun added. “It’s one thing to rent, but it’s another to own the property.”
That permanence would be especially important in this time of crisis. Mother Barbara made clear concerning current events that children are being exposed to what’s happening in Gaza: “These little children are already traumatized or disturbed. So to help people like this by continuing the sisters’ support gives them hope.”
“What is the most precious, precious thing in the families are the children,” Cardinal Fernando Filoni, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, told the Register. As a friend of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist and visitor to the Holy Child Program, he observed, “Sometimes families cannot alone do everything.”
Through the Holy Child Program, he added, “We try to help and to do our best, and I am glad that people are very sensitive on this aspect. … People are happy to do it, and the families are happy.”
“We’re evangelizing so many different people just by being who we are,” Barillaro concluded. “Holy Child Program is a beautiful example of what it can be if you just put your mind to it.
To learn more about the Holy Child Program, visit HolyChildBethlehem.org, see success stories, and learn how to help. Also contact through Bethlehem Holy Child Program, P.O. Box 7083, Meriden, CT 06450.