Catholic Extension announces 2016-2017 Lumen Christi Award

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Recipient from Puerto Rico provides safe haven for abused children.

Catholic Extension names its first ever Lumen Christ Award recipient from Puerto Rico.

Melva Arbelo, the director of Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is the recipient of the 2016-2917 Lumen Christi Award.

You are one of God’s special blessings to those children. This award is our effort to point to where the light of Christ is shining brightly, and we look forward to holding your light up for the larger Church to see.

The director of a Church-run home for abused and neglected children in Puerto Rico is the recipient of Catholic Extension’s 2016-2017 Lumen Christi Award. The Chicago-based fundraising and church-building organization announced Monday Sept. 19 that Melva Arbelo, the director of Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is being honored for “her faith-filled example of protecting and extending God’s love to the most vulnerable.”

Arbelo is the first recipient from Puerto Rico and will be presented with the award during a Mass on Oct. 19 in Arecibo.

Arbelo and her team have made it their mission to provide a loving and safe home for abused children ages 3 to 7, while helping them to heal and recover and restoring their dignity and sense of self-worth. Santa Teresita Home provides a protective shelter and a broad range of integrated services for children ages 3 to 7 who need to be shielded from domestic violence and other forms of child maltreatment.

Congratulating Arbelo, Father Jack Wall, the president of Catholic Extension, said, “You are one of God’s special blessings to those children. This award is our effort to point to where the light of Christ is shining brightly, and we look forward to holding your light up for the larger Church to see.”

Now in its 39th year, the Lumen Christi Award — Lumen Christi is Latin for “Light of Christ” — honors an individual or group who demonstrates how the power of faith can transform lives and communities. Recipients are honored not just for the light and hope they bring to forgotten corners of the country but for inspiring others to be “Lights of Christ” as well.

Bishop Daniel Fernández Torres of Arecibo, who nominated Arbelo for the award, said, “There is no better ministry than to take care of those less fortunate and show them that the Lord is good and will always take care of them. That is what Arbelo and her team provide for the children.”

The young children who arrive at Santa Teresita have had to be removed from their parents because they were severely neglected, physically beaten, or emotionally or sexually abused. They are often overwhelmed by their traumatic experiences, physical and emotional pain and feelings of abandonment.

“The situations the children come from are very sad,” Arbelo said. “Many of them have scars in their hearts from the painful experiences they have gone through. They have nightmares and wake up scared and crying, but we are there to comfort them.”

Sister Osorio said the children’s emotional and physical scars run deep. “Sometimes they unload their anger and pain by lashing out at other children or the staff,” she said. “It is our responsibility to guide them onto the right path. For them, the most important people are still Mami and Papi, no matter how bad they were to them.”

She added, “We need to try to gradually heal those wounds with our love, our welcome, our affection for them. The little hug they give us means a lot to them, and the one we give them in return does as well.”

Prompted by Catholics in Arecibo who were concerned about child abuse, the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation and members of Santa Teresita Parish started the home in 1999. Arbelo, a longtime member of the parish, got involved as one of the home’s first volunteers, helping to raise funds for its launch. She became its director in 2007.

“For me, this is more than work; it’s a mission,” she said. “Our motto is: ‘If nobody loves you, it is our joy to love you.’” No one exemplifies that love more than Arbelo, who has opened her arms to embrace, hold and cherish each child that arrives.

With its brightly painted and impeccably clean quarters, Santa Teresita Home can house up to 24 boys and girls. Arbelo manages a full-time staff of five as well as part-time employees and volunteers to provide meals, clothing, health care, psychological counseling, activities and spiritual guidance for the children. Most of the children go to school during the day.

Children are referred to Santa Teresita by the island’s family affairs department, taken away from their own homes for their protection. According to 2014 government statistics, almost 7,700 children in Puerto Rico — one in 100 — were victims of child maltreatment. Ninety-two percent of the perpetrators were parents.

The home has been severely impacted by the current debt crisis in Puerto Rico, which is crippling government services. Some of the government payments for the home have not been made for almost a year, and further cuts have been announced. “It is getting more and more difficult, and I don’t know what is going to happen,” Arbelo said.

In these difficult times, Arbelo is particularly grateful that Catholic Extension has been able to support the home. Not only did a grant from Catholic Extension help build the home in the first place, but Extension also helped when financial difficulties at one point threatened its existence.

“Catholic Extension is the reason our doors are still open today. Its help meant that we could continue to give these vital services to the children, that we could continue to bring about transformations in their lives because they truly need that. We need the link with Extension.”

For Arbelo, the $25,000 stipend that will be part of the Lumen Christi Award is a godsend. Over the years Extension has contributed more than $260,000 to Santa Teresita Home.

While the Santa Teresita Home provides a critical social service to the community, its work and mission are deeply rooted in faith. “We teach the children that God loves them,” she said. “We also teach them about forgiveness and how to pray for their friends and families. They love their families and miss them. And yet we know that something went terribly wrong in their families. The family department gives parents a chance to change their lives so the children can return to them, but unfortunately most do not change.”

“The children love to go to church,” said Arbelo, “because there they hear over and over the message that God loves them. It is there that they feel very close to God. They enjoy being at Mass with their friends from school. It is a very special time for them.”

Over the past 17 years, Santa Teresita Home has housed almost 500 children. When they are 7, after much therapy and many adjustments, children transition from the home. Some go to another institution, some to foster homes, some return home and some are adopted.

In her office Arbelo has photos of Luis and Cristina, a brother and sister. They lived in the home and have continued to thrive since being adopted several years ago. Their new family regularly returns to help out, and the children have even donated some of their savings to the home.

Despite the many challenges the children and the home face, Arbelo keeps a hopeful perspective. The children keep her spirits up. “I believe in these children. They are the future of our island, and we must open our arms to them. I know we can do that.”

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Catholic Extension in Puerto Rico:
Catholic Extension has been active in Puerto Rico since its very early days. Extension’s founder, Father Francis Clement Kelley, had a great interest in helping the Puerto Rican Church, and in 1909 he issued an impassioned plea to Extension magazine readers to help save the Catholic Church in the cradle of the faith in the Western hemisphere.

Since its first assistance in 1908 for a building project in the Archdiocese of San Juan, Catholic Extension’s funding to the island’s six dioceses has totaled more than $54 million (or $100 million when adjusted for inflation). More than 40 percent, or $22 million, of these funds have gone toward 1,400 building projects for churches and church facilities.

Over the past five years combined, funding from Catholic Extension to Puerto Rico has been almost $6 million. In addition to the programs already mentioned, some of the other areas Catholic Extension supports today include lay leadership formation, youth ministry, catechist training, hospital chaplains, communications and retreat ministries.

To help with the greater needs in Puerto Rico, Catholic Extension is planning to further increase its funding to the island next year.

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