The Holy Child Program is a unique educational and psychological treatment center located in Beit Sahour, the town of the Shepherds who heeded the angels’ announcement that the Savior — the Holy Child — was born for them in nearby Bethlehem.
Response to a need
Founded in 1995 by the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, the Holy Child Program is one of the only centers in the Bethlehem area serving children with severe behavioral and emotional problems in a therapeutic day treatment setting. It started due to the requests of parents whose children were suffering from psychological distress from the first Intifada in 1987. The Program began with four children; currently it serves 35 children and their families. It provides additional outreach programs in the West Bank, including being a training center for local universities such as Bethlehem University, An Najah University in Nablus and Birzeit University, and other agencies serving children and families in the region.
Healing leading to healthy lives
The mission of the Holy Child Program has always been to instill hope through healing. It is a safe place for those who manifest emotional behavioral problems resulting in difficulties at home, at school and in the community. While the attitude in this region is slowly changing toward those who have a disability, these children are still seen as outcasts in their society. Like St. Francis kissing the leper, these children and their families are given the time, attention and love necessary to heal. And not only to heal, but to become integrated and giving members of society. Graduating students are followed and supported for a minimum of two years after graduation.
The Holy Child Program boasts a high success rate of 96% for its graduates. This means that those completing the program are engaged in productive community-based programs such as attending educational/vocational programs or financially supporting their families through work. Program graduates are productive, contributing members of their local community.
The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church provide the framework for the services the Holy Child Program offers. Students begin each day together in this Catholic milieu, with a time of prayer. The student population of the Holy Child Program for the 2022-23 school year was 59% Christian and 41% Muslim. By praying together, they learn to understand and respect each other’s beliefs and form lasting friendships.
Students enrolled in the Program attend regular classes in a therapeutic classroom environment, based on their specific strengths and needs. At the same time, they receive a variety of therapies, aimed at helping them achieve mastery over their psychological and behavioral problems. The Holy Child Program also offers the Incredible Years Program, which teaches problem solving skills, increases emotional and social competence as well as reducing aggressive and disruptive behaviors. The Holy Child Program is the first in the Middle East to implement this internationally renowned, evidence-based treatment program, and has worked alongside the Incredible Years founder to not only translate the program into the Arabic language, but also to incorporate cultural nuances.
Family is an essential part of the healing process for each child. In order for change to be sustained, the whole family needs to grow together and learn new skills. Parents are engaged as partners in their child’s healing process. In turn, parents develop skills that foster healthy family dynamics, becoming better parents and providing stability for all their children.
Programs for the parents include individual and family counseling, mothers’ groups, educational support for mothers to assist children with homework, field trips and cultural enrichment programs, literacy promotion, and assistance with a daily recreational reading program. Mothers who have successfully completed the program with their child are invited to return as co-instructors. This not only affirms their own growth as mothers, but is also a sign of hope to other women who are so often burdened with total responsibility for raising their children.
The Equestrian Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre has been instrumental in the continuity of the Holy Child Program. A number of usa Lieutenancies have given grants to sustain the program over time, as well as for specific needs. The relationship first began when Cardinal O’Brien was Grand Master and took an interest in the work of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in the Holy Land. The Current Grand Master, Cardinal Filoni, visited the Holy Child Program in 2022, at the time of his visit to the Holy Land and Solemn Entry into the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
September 2023 will mark the 28th year of service to children and their families in the Bethlehem area. As a way of continued support for the families seeking the services of the Holy Child Program and to provide further expansion and continuity, the Franciscan Sisters are currently raising funds to purchase the building which has been home to the Program since 2000.
By Sr Naomi Zimmermann, fse