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.
But fortunately for some of these children in Puerto Rico, there is hope. Melva Arbelo and her team in Arecibo welcome them with open arms. They have made it their mission to protect and provide a loving home for them. They provide a place for the children to heal and recover.
Arbelo directs Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home. This protective shelter offers a broad range of integrated services for children from ages 3 to 7.
“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.”
Young children who have had to be removed from their parents because of neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse are often overwhelmed by their traumatic experiences. They can face physical and emotional pain. They feel alone and abandoned.
Dominican Sister Gilma Osorio, the home’s founding director, said the children’s emotional and physical scars run deep. She said, “For them, the most important people are still Mami and Papi, no matter how bad they were to them.”
It is our responsibility to guide them onto the right path.”
Healing pain with love
Sometimes they unload their anger and pain by lashing out at other children or the staff.
“We need to try to gradually heal those wounds with our love, our welcome, our affection for them,” said Sister Gilma. “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, and helped to raise funds. After her husband’s death in 2003, she continued to support the home. Four years later, she was asked by Santa Teresita’s board to become its director as the first layperson in the position.
“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,’”she said.
“For me, this is more than work; it’s a mission,”
Shining the Light of Christ
In recognition of her faith-filled example of extending God’s love to the most vulnerable, Melva Arbelo received Catholic Extension’s 2016–2017 Lumen Christi Award. She was the first recipient from Puerto Rico.
Father Jack Wall, the president of Catholic Extension, congratulated her:
“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.”
Lumen Christi is Latin for “Light of Christ.” The Lumen Christi Award honors an individual or group who demonstrates how the power of faith can transform lives and communities.
Over the years, Catholic Extension has contributed more than $260,000 to Santa Teresita Home.
“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,” said Melva. “We need the link with Extension.”
About 20 years ago, 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 Catholic 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.
Children are now referred to Santa Teresita by the island’s family affairs department. They are 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.
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, but when they return home to a big, bustling and happy family. The beautiful grounds of Santa Teresita have a backyard full of toys. They are safe and loved.
Tackling tough issues
These days Arbelo is particularly worried about Ana (all names of the children have been changed). She suspects that she may have been a victim of human trafficking.
Ana, who comes across as bright and outgoing, has no birth certificate. Although she appears to be 7, she never went to school before coming to Santa Teresita.
In part because of Ana, Arbelo has started to work with legislators and the government on legislation to prevent other children from becoming victims of human trafficking.
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.
The children love their families and miss them. Although, the family department gives parents a chance to change their lives, Melva says she unfortunately doesn’t see that happen often.
She instead helps them be grounded in faith. It helps the children not only to heal, but also to develop values and understand what’s right and wrong.
“We teach the children to give thanks for what they have received and that God loves them. We also teach them about forgiveness and how to pray for their friends and families.”
They talk about love of neighbor and love of God. Melva teaches them that whatever may have happened, that they should always keep their mom and dad in their prayers.
Living the faith
Faith formation takes many forms throughout the day. The children sing songs, pray and play games at an outdoor Stations of the Cross next to the home.
They walk together to the nearby parish church of Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus, where they pray 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.”
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 19 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. ”
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