EIST grant helps Myanmar students reach their potential

Tita Parham

EIST grant helps Myanmar students reach their potential | GBHEM
From left to right: Lar May Maung, Mu Dah, Cha Eh Pwo, Mu Shee."

Mu Dah has had life experiences most American youth can’t begin to comprehend.

After fleeing soldiers in her native Myanmar (formerly Burma) with her parents and four brothers, the 18-year-old lived with her family in the Umpium Mai refugee camp in a mountainous region of Thailand for 12 years.

The Rev. Adam Kelchner, pastor of mission and outreach and director of Golden Triangle Ministries at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., remembers Mu Dah telling him the soldiers would “burn down the village houses.”

“Everyone would be killed,” she said. “My family would connect with other families and then make the move across the border.”

In 2008, the family joined more than 1,500 Myanmar refugees who now call Nashville their home after escaping abuses and human rights violations, including forced labor and arbitrary executions.

Mu Dah was able to overcome the language and cultural challenges of her new community and this year graduated from high school with honors. Now, she’s preparing for college, hoping to go to medical school or pharmacy school after earning a bachelor’s degree.  She would like to work in the medical mission field because, in her words, Kelchner says, “she feels called to help people, and there is a lot of suffering in the world.”

She credits the Summer Scholar Extended Education (SEE) program at the Belmont church for her success. The program received a 2013 $10,000 Ethnic In-Service Training grant from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.   

 “I was a straight-A student with the help of my SEE Saturday program,” Mu Dah said in a letter to grant coordinators. “I can’t thank you enough for the money to support the class that has helped us in school and prepared us for our future education.”

 ‘Making the world a more beautiful place’

SEE is an education and leadership development program for high school students who are part of Nashville’s Karen and Myanmar refugee community. The Karen people, pronounced Ka-REN, are an ethnic group from the mountainous border regions of Myanmar and Thailand.  Twenty-five students participated in SEE’s spring session, and four of the five who graduated from high school will start college this fall.

A translator, math teacher and English teacher work with the program’s coordinator and more than 100 volunteers to provide classroom instruction and individual tutoring to the students, helping them improve their math and English skills.

The team also mentors the students and offers advice on vocational and post-secondary education options. That includes assistance navigating financial aid, college scholarship and enrollment applications, and opening bank accounts to pay tuition fees.  Summer events are geared toward job skills training and experience with partner agencies.

This year, it was one of six programs awarded an Ethnic In-Service Training grant from GBHEM in 2013. Each year, grants are awarded to programs that recruit, train and retain racial-ethnic United Methodists for leadership positions.

“These funds provide an additional opportunity for local congregations and entities to reach out when they see a critical need in their communities,” said Cynthia Bond Hopson, GBHEM’s assistant general secretary for the Black College Fund and Ethnic Concerns. “Whether the proposed ministry is for childcare and enrichment to neighborhood children or ensuring that ethnic pastors safely and culturally assimilate into larger settings, these funds are a precious gift, and they go a long way toward making the world a more beautiful place.”

Each grant is typically between $5,000 and $10,000 and intended as one-time seed money. Funding for the grants comes from contributions to World Communion Sunday, one of the denomination’s six annual church wide Special Sundays. The application deadline is typically in September, with the funding available by November 15.

“Our entire committee reads applications and makes recommendations on which projects to fund,” Hopson said. “The SEE program had such great potential to make the difference in the personal and academic lives of Karen and Burmese refugee youth that it really was a no-brainer. Belmont [United Methodist Church] saw a need and filled it. In doing so, they have empowered not just the students, but their families and community, as well.”

Support for the journey

Twenty-five students participated in SEE’s spring session, and four of the five who graduated from high school will start college this fall.

Mu Dah wants to go to medical or pharmacy school after receiving her bachelor’s degree so she can work in the medical mission field. Kelchner says SEE students are the first in their families to attend Nashville’s public schools and are often the decision-makers on finances and healthcare because parents and grandparents have limited English skills.

“The added responsibility of helping first-generation refugee family members adjust and navigate legal, medical, educational and social service systems is a tremendous challenge to 16- and 17-year-olds,” Kelchner said.

Belmont’s Golden Triangle Fellowship—named for an area of Southeast Asia called the Golden Triangle that includes Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand—offers weekly worship services translated into Karen and Thai to more than 200 people, as well as Sunday school for all ages, a men’s group, a youth choir and the SEE program.

“The [SEE] project regularly reminds me and the planning team of our deep economic, social and educational privilege and compels us to come alongside these beloved youth to encounter Jesus Christ,” Kelchner said.  They’re also involved in “acts of mercy and piety” for their neighbors and the Tennessee Annual Conference, he says, adding, “These students are not waiting to offer their best gifts to help the church demonstrate the love and grace of Jesus Christ to the neighborhood.”

Members of the Belmont church feel the blessings, too.

The program provides an opportunity “for staff, volunteers and participants to experience the love and care of Christ’s church that is particularly attuned to variations of ethnicity, race, faith story and economic status within itself,” Kelchner said. “Without the SEE program, our faith community would lose a piece of its beauty, joy, richness and deep experience of God’s grace.”

Learn more about submitting a grant application here. Next round grant applications are due September 30, 2014.

Tita Parham is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.

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