Diocese of Newark church connects local students to children with disabilities in East Jerusalem

December 20, 2019
Princess Basma Centre

Barbara Boehm, center, a parishioner from St. James Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey, presents a letter from student employees at the church’s thrift shop to children at the Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre in 2018. Photo courtesy of AFEDJ

[Episcopal News Service] Student employees at an Episcopal church’s mission store in Montclair, New Jersey, are supporting children thousands of miles away through a campaign to raise money for an Anglican medical center in East Jerusalem.

St. James Episcopal Church runs a secondhand shop called Sky’s the Limit Thrift Store. It is staffed by local high school students with disabilities. St. James also for several years has partnered with the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem to support the families served by the Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre.

Last year, the Sky’s the Limit student employees sent a letter to the children at the medical center who are being treated for their own disabilities. This year, four of the St. James store’s employees wrote to the Diocese of Newark urging approval of a diocesan grant for the East Jerusalem facility’s Mother Empowerment Program. The program provides individualized support for mothers of children with newly diagnosed disabilities.

“It is very important that we help. That is the only way to make things better for everyone,” the student employees wrote in their letter.

The Diocese of Newark responded by awarding $4,000 from its Alleluia Fund, and the students donated an additional $1,000 from sales at Sky’s the Limit. St. James was able to offer another $5,000 thanks to a one-time gift to the church’s discretionary fund. The $10,000 is enough to pay for two mother-and-child pairs to attend the Mother Empowerment Program at the Princess Basma Centre.

The Montclair church’s connection to the Diocese of Jerusalem’s medical center has meant a lot to the students employed by the Sky’s the Limit Thrift Store, St. James parishioner Barbara Boehm told Episcopal News Service.

“It’s so great to see the excitement that it generates in them to be helping students half a world away,” said Boehm, who volunteers at the store on Saturdays and also serves as a trustee with American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, or AFEDJ.

And the Princess Basma Centre partly inspired the creation of the Sky’s the Limit Thrift Store two years ago, according to the Rev. Melissa Hall, rector at St. James. The congregation’s efforts to raise money in support of the children served by the Diocese of Jerusalem opened St. James to the idea of finding ways to serve children in its own community.

“The wheel keeps going around,” Hall said. “It’s really been remarkable.”


Many disabled students served by the Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre are mainstreamed into the inclusive school where on-site therapies are available to them. Photo: Heidi Shott/AFEDJ

Support for the East Jerusalem medical center is spread across The Episcopal Church. The Diocese of Newark is one of nearly a dozen Episcopal dioceses that AFEDJ contacted this year as it worked to raise money for the Mother Empowerment Program.

The program has three objectives: training mothers to provide therapy to their children at home, alleviating the stress of caring for a child with disabilities and building up mothers to become advocates for their families. AFEDJ notes that those objectives coincide with several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, established in 2015 to build on the global anti-poverty work promoted by the U.N.’s previous Millennium Development Goals.

The Episcopal Church and many of its dioceses had championed the Millennium Development Goals after they were created in 2000. Newark, for example, voted in 2004 to commit 0.7 percent of its annual operating income to ministries supporting the eight goals. When the United Nations shifted to its Sustainable Development Goals, Newark continued to set aside money for international outreach and distributed the money through its Alleluia Fund grants.

In addition to Newark, the dioceses of Maine, Massachusetts, Northern California, Olympia, Ohio, Rochester and Western North Carolina have committed money this year to the Mother Empowerment Program through their own grants aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. Education equity and gender equality are among the goals addressed by the program at the Princess Basma Center, AFEDJ says.

The facility, founded by the Diocese of Jerusalem in 1965, is a charitable rehabilitation center serving children with a range of disabilities, and it is known as a pioneer in treating children with autism from the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

Boehm, an art curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said she first traveled to Jerusalem about five years ago on a work trip. While there, she took baby blankets to the Princess Basma Centre based on a request from AFEDJ. She brought back stories of the experience to her congregation at St. James.

“Everyone was just overwhelmed by the amazing work that they do at this center,” Boehm said. She and other St. James parishioners began visiting the center on church trips to Jerusalem, and the congregation, through its outreach budget, now gives more than $2,000 a year to AFEDJ to support the Princess Basma Centre.

Separately, a parishioner who works as a high school teacher mentioned to Hall two years ago that it was difficult to find workplaces that would hire special-needs teenagers. Hall said it was like “the Holy Spirit blew through the room,” and the congregation quickly developed a plan to renovate the church basement and turn it into a thrift shop that would hire students with disabilities.

The dozen or so students who now work at the Sky’s the Limit store have been drawn to the cause of helping children in Jerusalem, and AFEDJ welcomes their support.

“We thank the young people who run the thrift store at St. James for showing us all how to share gifts with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land,” AFEDJ Executive Director John Lent said in a written statement. “These students and the St. James community have built a tangible connection to children in East Jerusalem who are treated and educated at the remarkable Princess Basma Centre.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

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