Living Hope Newsletter – November 2015
Corpus Christi: Diversity Working as One
While their founding roots in Spain have influenced the Claretians’ legacy of ministry among Spanish-speaking communities throughout the country, one Claretian parish in particular is home to an extraordinarily diverse population—ethnically and culturally.
Corpus Christi Parish, located about 10 miles east of Atlanta and serving several surrounding towns, is unique among Claretian communities because it is made up of people from all over the world, including a large refugee population. In the last ten years, the parish has received 16,000 recent immigrants, more than the rest of the state of Georgia combined. The parishioners here are a lively blend of Asians, Caribbeans, Hispanics, Africans, African Americans, Native Americans, Europeans, and Caucasian Americans of various ethnic backgrounds. Over 60 countries and islands are represented at Corpus Christi!
Many of the people here face the challenges associated with immigration, with about a quarter of the region’s residents living below the poverty line. Unemployment and underemployment play a big role in this, which can stem from the limited English that is spoken by recent immigrants struggling to get and maintain adequate jobs to support their families. Several years ago, parishioners eager to learn English began asking the Claretians if they could learn right there in their more rural home community, to supplement the courses they were taking in city programs. The Claretians launched their own English as a Second Language (ESL) ministry at Corpus Christi, tapping into the expertise of several retired educators in the parish who lend their talents to the program and helped develop the curriculum. The goal is not only to enhance English language skills for refugees, but also to provide them an opportunity to connect and form bonds with others in the parish.
Between 10 and 20 adult refugees from African and Asian countries attend the weekly classes. They focus on conversational skills and learn to navigate day-to-day situations. Several volunteer teachers and classroom assistants run the classes.
Making It Possible to Be Involved
Like many refugee parishioners at Corpus Christi, not all those who want and need the ESL classes have a means of transportation to get there. Transportation is a major challenge facing the refugee population here— without a U.S. driver’s license or regular access to a vehicle, many families are cut off from services, jobs, and other support opportunities. To respond to this other far-reaching need, Corpus Christi formed its Refugee Transportation Program to provide transportation for families from the surrounding area, so they are able to participate in the parish community on lots of levels.
Volunteers use a 12-passenger van to pick up and drop off those needing transportation for a range of important events such as appointments with doctors, meetings with government officials, parish programs like the ESL classes, and parish social events.
About 17 parish families—who come from many countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Burma—regularly have transportation needs, particularly the children (there are more than 40 who use the program). The transportation ministry was put into action when the parish began to see an increase in attendance at Masses by refugees. They were from the neighboring town of Clarkston, and were looking for a place to build connections with the community, in addition to learning about helpful parish services.
Without this form of parish-supported transportation, many would have to walk as far as five miles along streets that aren’t always safe for pedestrians, or spend at least an hour on the bus to get to the parish. This program allows them to get to Corpus Christi and other destinations safely and quickly.
The parish is also happy to make use of the van to deliver large boxes of food for each of the families in the program every Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as clothing and other basic necessities.
Serving refugees in a more rural suburban setting— without the same access to social services that is more readily available in large cities—is challenging. But in addressing refugees’ transportation and language needs, Corpus Christi is making a meaningful difference.
The Parish’s Children
The number of young people who use the Corpus Christi transportation program reflects that Corpus Christi is overall a relatively young community; a third of residents are under the age of 20, with 9% of those being under the age of five. Many of Corpus Christi’s programs are crucial because they make a positive impact on kids starting from an early age to enable them to know and stay on a good track as they grow through their teens and into adulthood.
Many of the community’s young people are growing up in small rented homes run by a single parent. In 2011, 32% of households here had a single parent, which was double the national average. This means that significantly more children than in other areas in our country are living in homes with a higher likelihood of being below the poverty line and having little-to-no adult supervision outside of school.
This region of Georgia also has one of the highest crime rates in the state, adding further to the threats families face. From 2010 to 2012, the county consistently ranked second in total crimes in the Atlanta metropolitan area, putting kids at greater risk if they are not positively engaged during their free time.
To address the needs of families with very young children, the Claretians’ Little Ones Preschool provides a nurturing and loving atmosphere for children to develop mentally, physically, and socially. Programs at Little Ones improve communication and cognitive skills, encourage active play, and teach a spirit of cooperation and sharing.
Little Ones has gained its expertise over nearly 40 years with dedicated, credentialed teachers who focus on helping the children develop. In the classroom, the multicultural environment celebrated at Corpus Christi is equally important, giving the students a unique opportunity to learn about the world. Children from very different countries see each other as friends and peers.
But with this diversity come certain challenges—and opportunities. Some students arrive in class speaking no English. Little Ones believes in immersing these students in the classroom, and in almost no time at all, they start to pick up the language and have little trouble interacting and following the lessons.
For parents who might not speak English fluently, Little Ones enlists bilingual volunteers to translate for parents so that they are more comfortable talking with teachers about their children’s progression in class.
The school currently isn’t able to offer any financial assistance for families. To that end, a scholarship fund is their most pressing need. While Little Ones believes that everyone should pay something to send their children to the school, many families would benefit from a little help.
As the kids move beyond their preschool years and enter elementary, middle, and high school, their need for mentoring and team activities is pronounced. All young people benefit from fun, productive things to do after school hours and in the summer; here, the demands of growing up in the area surrounding the parish mean that young people need plenty of structured activity to help them stay out of trouble, too.
One of the most beloved of the youth programs at the parish is the Corpus Christi Youth Basketball League. Since 1981, the co-ed league gives about 200 young people ages 5 to 16 the opportunity to learn important life and leadership skills from positive mentors, while having fun and staying healthy. These kids are not all active in the parish, so the program gives Corpus Christi the chance to appeal to the larger community and ultimately keep more young people off the street.
Beyond the more obvious physical benefits of regular exercise, being part of a sports team run by trained adults has a tremendously positive impact. The league’s coaches teach their players the value of sportsmanship, hard work, practice, dedication, and respect for others and themselves. They also stress that everyone has something valuable to contribute by making sure that all players on every team play in each game, no matter their skill level or the score.
League coaches help build lasting relationships in a safe, fun, social setting. Many kids who started in the league as 6- or 7-year-olds now work with the next generation of players as volunteer coaches. This strong emotional connection between the players and the League fosters a loyalty to each other and to the community.
The welcoming energy of the team is one of its greatest assets. League volunteers actively reach out to area families to make sure everyone knows about the program and can play if they would like. Volunteers offer transportation, tutoring, mentoring, and financial support (by way of paying the $100-per-participant program fee) for families in need. During the season, the League invites special guests to speak to the young players, and organizes trips to NBA or college basketball games.
By combining important life skills with fun and an opportunity to socialize safely with friends, the Corpus Christi Youth Basketball League provides an invaluable opportunity for the parish to consistently and positively impact the lives of young people in the community.
When the many players and coaches who say being part of the basketball league “feels like coming home,” the Claretians and all involved in the faith community at Corpus Christi know that their outreach on this and all fronts is working to meet the needs of the people in significant ways.