Hand y Mano builds bridge to community for Columbia’s refugee children

By Jessica Brodie

WEST COLUMBIA—This summer, dozens of Midlands refugee children are getting the chance to build better literacy skills and better ties to America thanks to a program started by Columbia District United Methodist churches.

Hand y Mano, offered mornings from July 31 to Aug. 11 at Virginia Wingard Memorial United Methodist Church, is helping roughly 40 kindergarten through third graders, plus 10-15 high schoolers through Richland School District 1’s School Impact program.

“We’re trying to be a bridge to help these children, a bridge to meet a need in the community,” said Martha Thompson, one of the coordinators, noting the program aims to reflect John 10:10: to have life and have it abundantly. “They’re wanting to learn, wanting to assimilate.”

And the churches are wanting to do all they can to help.

Hand y Mano started in 2015 as a partnership among various churches in the district, Richland School District 1 and Lutheran Family Services. Initially, Thompson said, their goal was to help local Hispanic/Latino children, but soon enough, it became apparent God had other plans for the program: helping scores of unreached refugees from countries such as Burma, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

“I don’t think we ended up having even one Hispanic/Latino child,” Thompson said, noting that she has since learned that, nationwide, nearly 900,000 refugees have settled in the United States since 2001, and only 1 percent of all refugees are resettled. Most refugees come from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, she shared.

Most of the children attending Hand y Mano come from two apartment complexes near Virginia Wingard, where most of the refugees live. Area teachers and other volunteers give their time to teach the children. Lutheran Family Services helps with transportation, and the Summer Feeding Program at Francis Burns UMC, Columbia, provides food (breakfast, lunch and snack).

The day goes fast, organizers said. After breakfast, the students rotate to different activities: art, literacy, games, math, reading and language development. In-house field trips offer extra enrichment opportunities, from presentations by wildlife experts to a visit from a therapy dog. Snack and lunch round out the day.

Many of the books are provided thanks to the South Carolina Conference of the UMC’s Million Book Effort, from 2015. The Faith group at Washington Street UMC, Columbia, along with members from Platt Springs UMC, West Columbia, Mount Horeb UMC, Lexington, and other churches, also help with leadership.

“There are a lot of hands, a lot of minds, a lot of hearts in this; we’ve got a groundwork of something that can really make a difference,” said the Rev. Scott Smoak, Virginia Wingard’s pastor. “This is a way to create a more excellent way.”

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