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Puerto Rican protector of abused children wins Lumen Christi Award

Melva Arbelo, director of the Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, has been named the winner of the 2016-17 Lumen Christi Award given annually since 1978 by American fundraising organisation Catholic Extension.

Arbelo and her team help 24 children ages 3-7 who were removed from their homes after being severely neglected, physically beaten, or emotionally or sexually abused.

Lumen Christi Award, Latin for ‘Light of Christ,’ honours a person or group who demonstrates how the power of faith can transform lives and communities.

Santa Teresita was started in 1999 by the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation and members of Santa Teresita Parish. Arbelo, a longtime member of the parish, was one of the home’s first volunteers, helping to raise funds for its launch. She became its director in 2007.

The Bishop of Arecibo, Daniel Fernandez Torres, in nominating Arbelo for the award, said: “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.”

‘For me, this is more than work; it’s a mission,’ Arbelo said in a statement on 19th September. ‘Our motto is: ‘If nobody loves you, it is our joy to love you.’

‘We teach the children that God loves them,’ she added. ‘We also teach them about forgiveness and how to pray for their friends and families. They love their families and miss them. And yet we know that something went terribly wrong in their families.’

A full-time staff of five tends to the children as well as part-time employees and volunteers to provide meals, clothing, health care, psychological counseling, activities and spiritual guidance for the children. Most of the children go to school during the day.

‘The children love to go to church,’ Arbelo said, ‘because there they hear over and over the message that God loves them. It is there that they feel very close to God. They enjoy being at Mass with their friends from school. It is a very special time for them.’

According to the Puerto Rican government, one per cent of all children on the island are victims of maltreatment, and the parents are the perpetrators 92 per cent of the time.

Over the years, Chicago-based Catholic Extension has contributed more than $260,000 (£198,875) to Santa Teresita Home. Extension has contributed nearly $6 million (approx £4.6 million) over the past five years to various programs and initiatives in Puerto Rico. Arbelo’s $25,000 (approx. £19,000) prize comes in handy, as the island commonwealth’s government, which placed the children in Santa Teresita, has had severe financial struggles and is nearly a year behind in some of its payments to the home.

Fr Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension, told Arbelo she is “one of God’s special blessings to those children. … We look forward to holding your light up for the larger Church to see.”

The award will be given to Arbelo during Mass in Arecibo on 19th October. She is the first recipient from Puerto Rico.

Catholic Extension is a national American fundraising organisation founded in 1905 to support the work and ministries of mission dioceses in the US and its territories.

Picture: Melva Arbelo, director of Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is seen in an undated photo reading a picture book with one of the children. Arbelo is the recipient of Catholic Extension’s 2016-2017 Lumen Christi Award. (CNS photo/Rich Kalonick, Catholic Extension).