Melva Arbelo Mangual, the 2016-2017 Lumen Christi recipient from Puerto Rico, provides a haven for neglected and abused children
No one is more vulnerable than a child without parental love. And in cases where such lack of love spills into physical and emotional abuse and neglect, the story is heartbreaking.
Young children who have had to be removed from their parents because they were severely neglected, physically beaten, or emotionally or sexually abused are often overwhelmed by their traumatic experiences, physical and emotional pain and feelings of abandonment.
Fortunately for some of these children in Puerto Rico, Melva Arbelo and her team in Arecibo have made it their mission to protect and provide a loving home for them, while helping them to heal and recover and restoring their dignity and sense of self-worth. Arbelo directs Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home, which 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.
“The situations they come from are very sad,” Arbelo said. “Many of the children 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.”
Dominican Sister Gilma Osorio, the home’s founding director, 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.”
Arbelo has been involved in the shelter since its doors opened in 1999. She and her husband were among its original volunteers, helping to raise funds. After her husband’s death in 2003, she continued her support of the home, and four years later, she was asked by Santa Teresita’s board to become its director, the first layperson in this position.
“For me, this is more than work; it’s a mission,” she said. “Again and again I see that God is really the one who directs this institution. ... 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.
A bright Light of Christ
In recognition of her faith-filled example of extending God’s love to the most vulnerable, Melva Arbelo has been selected as Catholic Extension’s 2016–2017 recipient of the Lumen Christi Award. She is the first recipient from Puerto Rico.
Congratulating her, Father Jack Wall, the president of Catholic Extension, said, “You are one of God’s special blessings to those children. In nurturing them, you bring forth God’s love for each one of them. We are honored and delighted to recognize your wonderful work with the Lumen Christi Award. 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 her for the award, said, “There is no better way to evangelize than by being a reflection of God’s love and mercy. 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.”
When she heard the news about the award, Sister Osorio exclaimed, “Ave Maria! We are so happy. This means a great deal to us.”
It was almost 20 years ago that Catholics in Arecibo decided they wanted to do something about the increase in child abuse they were witnessing in their community. They turned to the Church for help. The Dominican Sisters of the Presentation and members of Santa Teresita Parish answered the call and began to develop plans for the home. Catholic Extension provided the funding to construct the new building.
Today, 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, 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 a big, bustling and happy family.
Children are referred to Santa Teresita by the island’s family affairs department, usually 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.
These days Arbelo is particularly worried about Ana (all names of the children have been changed), suspecting that she may have been a victim of human trafficking. Ana, who comes across as bright and outgoing, has no birth certificate, and although she appears to be 7, she never went to school before coming to Santa Teresita.
In part because of Ana’s story, Arbelo says she has started to work with legislators and the government on legislation to prevent other children from becoming victims of human trafficking.
Catholic Extension's help has been a crucial link
To Melva Arbelo, receiving the Lumen Christi Award is yet another sign of God’s blessings on the ministry of Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home.
She also sees God at work in the help that Catholic Extension has been able to provide for the home since its inception. 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.”
Over the years Extension has contributed more than $260,000 to Santa Teresita Home. Beginning in 1981, another $90,000 has gone to the adjacent Santa Teresita Church, not counting a current $35,000 fundraising challenge that helped fund a recently completed renovation of the church.
Grounded in faith
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 to give thanks for what they have received and that God loves them,” she said. “We also teach them about forgiveness and how to pray for their friends and families. They love their mom, 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.”
Being grounded in faith, she said, helps the children not only to heal but also to develop values and understand what’s right and wrong. “We talk about love of neighbor and love of God. It teaches them that whatever may have happened, their mom and dad are always in their prayers.”
Faith formation takes many forms throughout the day. During a recent visit, the children sang songs, prayed and played games at an outdoor Stations of the Cross next to the home. They walked together to the nearby parish church of Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus, where they prayed with the priest and practiced making the sign of the cross.
“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 love the priest and the parish community. They enjoy being at Mass with their friends from school. It is a very special time for them.”
Much of the faith formation for the children at the home is done by Sister Osorio. Since stepping down as director, she has focused on her pastoral role. She said it has been wonderful to delegate many of her responsibilities to Arbelo, a “layperson in whom the Church has discovered such great talents and capabilities. It has made me deeply happy and also very free.”
When asked how she sees God being the “real director” of the home, Arbelo said, “I can feel God here when we are at peace and also when we have had to face difficult situations.”
"We have the sensibility, we have the strength, we have the compromise, and we have the love to change the world," Arbelo said.
The future of Puerto Rico
For many of the children, Arbelo has become a mother figure.
“Yesterday my 25-year-old son came to the home. When I introduced him as my son, one of the girls made a point of saying to me, ‘You are mine.’ It made my son smile. If I can be someone special to them, they are also very special to me. For me the most rewarding part of this mission is to see the smiles on the faces of the children.”
In her office Arbelo has photos of Luis and Cristina, a happy 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.
Another favorite photo shows Isabella, a girl who lived at the home and went on to represent Latin America in a beauty pageant. She too remains connected to the home and is grateful for the love and care she received there.
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.
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.”