No one is more vulnerable than a child without parental love. And in cases where lack of love spills into physical and emotional abuses, the story is heartbreaking.
Fortunately, Melva Arbelo Mangual is working with a team of caregivers in Puerto Rico to provide healing and a better life for some of these victims.
Twenty years ago, in the Diocese of Arecibo, a community that witnessed an increase in the abuse of children turned to the Church for help. The Dominican Sisters of the Presentation answered the call and decided to organize a group to develop a safe place for these children. Catholic Extension provided funding to construct a new building.
In 1999 Santa Teresita Hogar opened its doors. The hogar or “home” provides a temporary shelter for children ages 3 to 7 who are victims of abuse.
One of the original volunteers was Arbelo Mangual, who was deeply involved with fundraising along with her husband. With her husband’s untimely death in 2003, she continued her support of the home and, four years later, was asked by then-Bishop Iñaki Mallona Txertudi to become its director, the first layperson in this position.
The mission of the home is to uplift the dignity of children by showing them the power of love, forgiveness and their own self-worth.
Its motto is “If nobody loves you, it is our joy to love you.”
No one exemplifies that love more than Arbelo Mangual, who has opened her arms to hold and cherish each child that arrives.
With its brightly painted and impeccably clean quarters, the home can house 24 boys and girls. Children are referred there by the island’s family affairs department, usually taken away from their own homes. Upon arrival, many are literally starving. They are evaluated by psychologists and social workers to understand their physical and emotional health and academic level.
Arbelo Mangual manages a full-time staff of five and many part-time employees and volunteers to provide meals, clothing, health care, fun activities and guidance for the children. Most of the children go to school during the day and return home to the beautiful grounds of Santa Teresita with a backyard full of toys and bicycles and a big, bustling and happy family.
Faith is a critical piece of the experience. “We teach the children to give thanks for what they’ve received and that God loves them,” she said. “They like to go to Mass because there they hear over and over the message that God loves them.”
“We also teach them about forgiveness. It’s not easy because they have been hurt by people they trusted, but they need to forgive to be able to heal,” she added.
At age 7, after much therapy and many adjustments, children transition from the home. Some go to another institution, some return home and some are adopted.
Since its founding, Santa Teresita Hogar has housed almost 500 children. Catholic Extension has provided further funds to help with operational expenses. In addition, the home receives a monthly per-child stipend from the government. But with the current debt crisis in Puerto Rico — which is crippling the government — it has not received that payment since January and has had to cut back on services.
“It’s devastating, but we will march forward,” Arbelo Mangual said. “This home is so profoundly transforming the lives of these children. We must continue.”
Having devoted her life to inspiring hope in the most vulnerable, Arbelo Mangual says she is honored to be in a position to help redirect the lives of those who walk in the door. She gives thanks to God, whom she calls the “real director” of the home.
Above all, Arbelo Mangual wants to restore the dignity of the children and let them know love.