WATCH: Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable children find a mother figure in Melva Arbelo Mangual

Director of Santa Teresita Home is Catholic Extension’s 2016–2017 Lumen Christi Award recipient

For her work of extending God’s love to vulnerable and abused children, Melva Arbelo Mangual is Catholic Extension’s 2016–2017 recipient of the Lumen Christi Award. She is the first recipient from Puerto Rico.

As director of the Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home, Arbelo has become a mother figure to the over 500 children who have come through the shelter since it opened in 1999, according to an article on Catholic Extension’s web site. Arbelo and her husband were among Santa Teresita’s original volunteers and helped raise money for it. When Arbelo’s husband died in 2003, she stayed on and in 2007 was asked by Santa Teresita’s board to be its first lay director. The Dominican Sisters of the Presentation run the home and have since its beginnings.

The children at Santa Teresita are between 3 and 7 years old and have been removed from their parents or care givers due to neglect, abuse or abandonment. According to government statistics from 2014, almost 7,700 children in Puerto Rico — one in 100 — are victims of maltreatment and 92% of the perpetrators are parents.

Sister Gilma Osorio, the home’s founding director, says the children’s emotional and physical scars run deep. “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.”

For Arbelo, working with the kids is a mission. “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 says.

Today, Santa Teresita Home can accommodate 24 boys and girls and is staffed by five full-time people, as well as part-time employees and volunteers. Grants from Catholic Extension helped build the home and keep it going over the past 20 years. The organization has contributed more than $260,000 to Santa Teresita’s.

While it provides a critical social service to the community, the mission of Santa Teresita’s is deeply rooted in faith.

“We teach the children to give thanks for what they have received and that God loves them,” [Arbelo] 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…”

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.”

Read more about Melva Arbelo Mangual, Santa Teresita Home, and the work of Catholic Extension.