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BY Carrie Swearingen
Santa Teresita Home for Abused and Orphaned Children in Arecibo, Puerto Rico is a long-standing and respected facility on the brink of closure due to the plummeting economy and changes in government requirements for like childcare facilities. “When the Home opened its doors, one adult caregiver was needed for every eight children,” said Father Joseph Schreck, O.F.M., Chancellor for the Diocese of Arecibo. “However, that requirement changed, leaving us to staff one caregiver for every four children. We received a faxed notification regarding the policy from the Department of the Family on March 19, 2002.” Santa Teresita Home currently cares for more than 20 children, ages two through five, who have been abused or abandoned by their parents. There is an ongoing waiting list to get in.
“The new requirements should not be challenged, as we often see the need for one caregiver per child,” continued Schreck. “One such recent case left us faced with two siblings ages two and five who had been terribly traumatized by the mutual stabbing of their parents. Not only did they suffer frequent flashbacks, but they cried and called out for their older siblings who would have been some comfort but were in another facility. Often the caregivers work overtime to calm the fears and soothe the sobbing. More caregivers are needed but, of course, more caregivers means more money for salaries.”
“We have forwarded $25,000 in emergency aid,” said Dick Ritter, Vice President of Catholic Extension, the largest supporter of missionary work in the U.S. and its territories. “But we are worried for the staff, the Sisters, and the endless list of children who depend on this facility.” The facility was built with a grant from Catholic Extension donors in 1998.
“The government here can no longer fund many individual institutions and, therefore, counts on the private sector to meet needs such as those at Santa Teresita,” said Schreck. “A generous offer made last year by the municipal government has yet to be realized because of decreased revenues. Federal funds, under one title or another, supply about one fourth of the monthly budget. The rest needs to come from donors, and their donations have dropped drastically.” Donations to Santa Teresita Home fell from $87,000 in 2000 to $64,000 in 2001, and total a mere $26,000 so far this year. “We are praying for help with this unexpected crisis. So many small business have folded, and even the larger shopping centers are completely empty. Santa Teresita Home will also be forced to close its doors as well, unless they begin receiving a monthly subsidy of $14,000.”
"The economy here is devastating," said Sister Roberta Grzelak, C.D.P., Director of the Promotion of Human Development, Diocese of Arecibo. "The economy is forcing residents to lose their good paying jobs, and so they settle for minimum wage jobs. They can't keep up the mortgage because the salary is not enough to pay for food and mortgage — therefore, there is the risk of losing their house and becoming homeless. There are so many stories.
"One woman was on the streets for three years. She lost her children. They were gathered up and sent to different places. I personally went with her, for six months, while trying to find help. She's willing to work, to do anything to have her kids back. She couldn't find the work because she doesn't have the education. She couldn't get her kids because she doesn't have a house. She couldn't get a house because her husband was involved with drugs — so she threw him out. But she still is blackballed because one strike and you're out. Here, in Puerto Rico, if anyone has been linked in any way to drugs, he or she cannot qualify for public housing.
"There are so many different pressures," said Grzelak. "And it is going to affect children. They desperately need places like our orphanage — Santa Teresita [Home for Mistreated Children]. The Family Department doesn't have enough housing to contain all of the displaced children — the orphans of poverty. And unconditional love is something children often forfeit when placed in a facility that does not adhere to a spiritual mission."
In this area, a distinguishable upper class is non-existent. Successful conglomerates do not make their home in Puerto Rico and, therefore, do not support a lower or middle class. Third-world countries become more appealing to large companies due to the abundance of work force, low cost of living, and lack of far-flung island shipping expenditures.
Only 20% have completed college, 48% have completed high school and the remaining have not completed school, according to Grzelak. An estimated 30% of residents are illiterate, yet without a high school diploma one cannot be considered for janitorial or other entry-level positions.
And what about those who are qualified? Often they may live too far from the job site to accept an available position because they simply cannot afford transportation. Without modern pubic transportation in far-reaching areas, scattered workers can likely access one commuter vehicle per day — if lucky. A blue-collar worker will commonly wait for that car at an early hour, crowd in with others, return in similar conditions after sundown, and the cost will swallow half of his salary.
Praying for Hope
“We never imagined that we would face such economic problems, or that housing and food for the children would actually be in jeopardy,” said Maria Alonso, administrator of Santa Teresita Home for Abused and Orphaned Children.
"The children here at the orphanage are ages two through five. And these kids give me something,” said Alonso. “Because when you finally have learned to see Jesus in everyone, then He is always calling you. He shows you in the eyes of others that He needs you in some way."
“The children are energetic and obviously loved," said Stefano Mereu, husband of a Catholic Extension employee and recent visitor to Arecibo. "Bright colors in play areas and theme-decorated bedrooms help the children to feel at home. I felt as though I was attacked by 23 smiles. They lined up to sing songs, laughed and played well together, and turned to the warm arms of the Sisters and other staff members as if they were their own mothers. It was heartwarming. That staff is doing exceptional work."
The children of the orphanage can stay for a maximum of one year. Through the Department of Family, they are often adopted by area couples or carefully back into the extended family of the birth mother when at all possible.
But money problems continue to grow. Puerto Rican laws have recently changed the adult/child ratio for such facilities, creating financial and staffing concerns for Santa Teresita. “We need ongoing general assistance,” wrote board member Gladys Tavarez. “We hope that Catholic Extension donors will find a way to support the home. These children are so loving and they depend on the constance of the care, the surroundings, the education, and the love provided here.”
Donors to assist the orphanage are needed. “We have helped them to build the center, provided some emergency aid, and now we need some generous donors to assist with ongoing care,” said Dick Ritter, Vice President of Catholic Extension. “One of our favorite quotes is that of St. Francis of Assisi: All we have left is what we have given away."
Donations can be made on-line at www-catholic-extension.org. Please designate your gifts to the orphans in Arecibo. You can also mail in your donation with the coupon below.
For more information call JoAnn Marciszewski at Catholic Extension, toll-free, at 1-888-4R-FAITH (1-888-473-2484).