UMCM transforms lives, churches through preschool, English for refugees ministries (Feb. 26, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

UMCM transforms lives, churches through preschool, English for refugees ministries

Feb. 26, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0029}

An e-Review Feature
By Martha A. Lane and Anne L. Hall**

ST. PETERSBURG - Sitting at their classroom tables, eagerly awaiting lunch, the children in Peggy Chlapowski's class offer a prayer in words and sign language: "Thank you for the sun, Thank you for the moon, Thank you for my family, Thank you for my friends, Amen."

ST. PETERSBURG - Volunteers Margaret Linn (left) and Elizabeth Bartelt help 5th-grader Chris Chittarath with his homework during an after-school program at Children of the World Preschool. Photo by Anne L. Hall, Photo #04-0010.
The prayer respects the diversity of students and staff at Children of the World Preschool, a unique preschool in St. Petersburg open to children and families of refugees and immigrants from all over the world.

The preschool is a program of United Methodist Cooperative Ministries/Suncoast, an outreach ministry of the Florida Conference and one of the conference's Advance Specials.

Barbara Crow, the school's director, and lead teacher Chlapowski have been with the school since 1988 when it opened as the Southeast Asian Preschool. It began as the vision of Vanessa Petrie, the first director of the Southeast Asian Christian Ministries program, and the Rev. Dr. Anne Burkholder, then director of the outreach ministries of the St. Petersburg District, and it was jointly sponsored by United Methodist Cooperative Ministries/Suncoast and Lakewood United Methodist Church here.

The preschool started with one room and eight children. The following year it had 15 children and a waiting list.

After more than a decade at Lakewood, the preschool moved to its present home, Hope Lutheran Church, 1801 62nd Ave. North, St. Petersburg. United Methodist Cooperative Ministries (UMCM) searched for another United Methodist church to host the school, but none had enough space.

The move enabled the preschool to go from half-day to full-day sessions, be closer to where refugees live and serve more children-up to 34. The name change reflects the program's expansion to admit any child who needs to learn English, as well as changing world politics and refugee situations.

The preschool is a bridge between many St. Petersburg communities. Its staff includes Laotian, Vietnamese and Venezuelan teachers and aides. The children come from Catholic, Methodist, Buddhist and Baptist homes.

"We're a little United Nations," joked Marylina Carbungco, UMCM's director of refugee and immigrant support services. As part of her work, Carbungco seeks funding for the school and works closely with each preschool family. UMCM staff members check on preschool graduates monthly to see how they are adjusting in kindergarten and how the entire family is doing. 

"We offer not just support for kids, but support for the families, too," Carbungco said. "If someone was laid off, we offer employment assistance. If they need help with transportation, we can offer bus passes. If they need to learn English, we match them with a volunteer tutor." 

UMCM trains ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) tutors throughout Pinellas and west Pasco counties, in addition to serving preschool families. At any given time about 150 volunteers are helping some 200 adults learn English. They meet in a housing project, churches, libraries and at the preschool.

Skycrest United Methodist Church is one of the ESOL tutoring sites. It is headed by Ron and Loretta Davidson, who felt called to the ministry after making short-term mission trips south of the U.S. border. Several other church members are volunteer tutors or provide child care while parents learn English.

The Rev. Fred Ball, Skycrest's pastor, says the ESOL program is "the best thing that has happened to my church in a decade." "[It] has brought in new families to the child-care center, and new families are coming to the English worship service so they can continue to use their new English skills," he said.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census data, nearly 88,000 people in Pinellas County are foreign born. That figure is nearly 10 percent of the county's total population and includes people from Europe, Asia, Africa, Central America and South America. In the same Census data, 104,000 people reported they speak a language other than English at home. Nearly 79,000 of those reported they speak English "less than very well."

Donna C. Ratzlaff, UMCM 's executive director, says the ministry's direct services greatly depend upon United Methodist giving at local, district and conference levels. "We are grateful to the conference Missions Ministry team, the St. Petersburg District and the conference Refugee Ministries Committee for their continued support for these ministries that 'welcome the strangers' and help them grow in self-sufficiency so that they may give back to the church and to their communities," she added.

Congregations support the preschool in various ways. Riviera United Methodist, located close to the preschool, loans its church van to the preschool to pick up children who could not otherwise attend. Volunteers, snacks, supplies and Christmas gifts come from several congregations. 

For Chlapowski, one of the preschool's two full-time teachers, working at the preschool has left a rich bank of memories.

 "The children are different every year," she said. "Some classes are quicker, others struggle. It's dependent on the parents' background, their education and income. I have a lot of good memories."

One of those memories is of one of the first students to attend the preschool. She went on to an early graduation program at Osceola High School and now is headed to the University of South Florida. "Mrs. Chip," as the children call Chlapowski, smiles as she recalls something the young woman recently told her: "I want to teach young children. I am going to be a school teacher, like you and Mrs. Crow."

For more information about the preschool or how congregations can become involved in ESOL ministries, contact Ratzlaff at 727-442-6881 or visit UMCM's Web site at


This article relates to Outreach and Missions.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Martha A. Lane is UMCM's literacy services director. Anne L. Hall is UMCM's volunteer tutor/student coordinator.

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