June 28, 2016

Two girls from Chicago, Laila and Lena Valenti, recently held a recital — beautifully playing the cello, the violin and also singing — to benefit a camp in Louisiana for children who are deaf and will never hear a note of their music, but who will nonetheless feel their love.

It all started with a Lenten project in Laila’s first-grade class at Frances Xavier Warde, a Catholic elementary school in Chicago. For the last nine years, each first-grader there has received $1 with the mission to find a creative way to make the money grow during Lent. The money is then donated to a service project through Catholic Extension.

This year the first-graders chose Cajun Camp, a two-week summer camp for deaf and deaf-blind children located in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana.  

The camp is for children ages 5 to 13, many of whom come from families who struggle financially, and gives them the opportunity to attend a traditional summer camp with art and crafts, sports, and field trips with others who all face the same physical challenges.

Laila decided that she wanted to do a musical fundraiser and asked her fourth-grade sister, Lena, who had done the Lenten project when she was a first-grader, to join her in a recital.

The girls are accomplished musicians. Lena began playing the violin at age 3 and has added voice and piano to her repertoire. Laila got an even earlier start at age 2 (when she was the size of a violin herself) and has since added cello and voice. Both sing in their parish choir.

As music lovers, the idea of helping children who can’t enjoy the magical power of music was particularly compelling.

“Camp Cajun makes a big difference,” said Laila. “It means a lot for those children.”

“It makes them feel good,” Lena added. “It’s important to support a camp where everyone fits in and can be confident about themselves.”

Julie Caillouet, the program coordinator for the Office of Persons with Disabilities at the Diocese of Lafayette who oversees the camp, agrees. “As Christians, it is our responsibility to love and care for those with disabilities and to prevent discrimination. At the camp, we focus on morals and values.”

Camp Cajun has been serving children for 40 years, and Caillouet is grateful for the support from Catholic Extension because “it allows us to provide more services for the campers, while keeping the costs affordable for our families.”

Fifty people attended the Valentis’ recital, which was held in Chicago and dedicated to their late grandfather, Joseph Valenti, Sr., who was a big supporter of all things Catholic. In their recital program the girls wrote of him, “His life of charity, generosity and kindness provide us with an example to live by.”

Faith plays a powerful role in motivating the girls to reach out to others. “We hear at Mass about the importance of helping people,” said Laila. They both do regular volunteer service projects such as helping at nursing homes and homeless shelters. They have also held other concerts for charities.

“Their school has a big emphasis on service,” said their mother, Priya Valenti. “Not just for the students, but families are also asked to do service projects together. Serving others becomes a part of our daily lives, not just something to check off a list.”

She acknowledged that the girls practiced mightily for this recital, in the midst of their otherwise busy lives, and added, “We are so fortunate to have musical instruments and be able to take lessons. We have to pass it on.”

In their recital, the girls raised an impressive $1,500 for Camp Cajun. The entire first-grade class raised more than $11,000 towards Catholic Extension’s commitment for this summer’s camp in July.

“We think that everyone should have the same chances in life,” said Lena. “When they do, it brings less attention to the fact that someone is different and helps us realize that those differences don’t really matter.”

It’s amazing what $1 and the will of children to lovingly use their talents can do.


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