A Christmas of giving
During Advent, a Christmas tree inside St. Charles Borromeo Church is decorated with toothy smiles, cherubic cheeks and big brown eyes.
Paper ornaments – bearing the photographs of orphaned children befriended by St. Charles Borromeo’s “Fountain of Youth” members during their biannual mission trips to Piedras Negras, Mexico – spell out the tree’s purpose: donations to a fund that will enable the Destrehan parish’s youth group to take the pictured children shopping for the gifts of their choice this coming January.
Youth Director Janeen Rodrigue, who launched St. Charles Borromeo’s “Adopt-an-Orphan Tree” six years ago, said the sheer modesty of the items requested by the children on past shopping expeditions often boggle the American mind; although the Louisiana Santa Clauses give the orphans full run of Piedras Negras’ big-box store, the youngsters bypass items such as electronics, jewelry and fancy sports gear, she said.
“It’s the little things that they are interested in – I guess it’s because they don’t have anything, so they want just the basics,” said Rodrigue, noting that candy and school supplies are among their most common requests.
Helping to steer the St. Charles Borromeo helpers in the right direction is Benedictine Sister Ursula Herrera, who ministers to the Piedras Negras orphans year-round from her home just over the border in Eagle Pass, Texas.
“Last year Sister Ursula asked us not to purchase toys or clothes for one of the orphanages because what they really needed that year was shoes,” Rodrigue said. “So we took them to a shoe store and let them choose their favorite shoes.”
Multiple locations served
This January’s Adopt-an-Orphan contingent, which will include Rodrigue and five young adults, will carry out the wishes of children living at four orphanages: Casa de Nazaret, separate girls’ and boys’ homes operated by Catholic women religious; Casa de Misericordia, a Methodist-operated orphanage for about 30 boys and girls; and Casa Bethesda, a non-denominational residence for 27 teens and adults with severe disabilities.
About 150 Mexican residents will be touched in some way by the project, with gifts given not only to the orphans themselves, but also to their caregivers, orphanage volunteers and Mass goers the St. Charles Borromeo missionaries have gotten to know over their 10 years of service trips to the area.
“Last year we collected almost $10,000. Our parishioners are very generous,” said Rodrigue, noting that donors also have the option to give Walmart gift cards, their proceeds used at the Eagle Pass Walmart to buy socks, underwear and other basics for each orphanage.
Rodrigue said one of the most moving parts of the New Year mission trip is when the St. Charles Borromeo contingent visits Casa Bethesda, where many occupants are bed or wheelchair bound. Although each resident will receive gifts next month, only seven will be mobile enough to go on the shopping trip, Rodrigue said.
“When we took them to the store last year you’re never gonna believe what they wanted – their own bag of chips!” Rodrigue said. “At Casa Bethesda they share everything, so just having their own bag of chips means so much to them.”
Another touching moment was when the Casa Bethesda’s oldest resident – a 49-year-old man named Javier – asked through the interpreter if his gift allotment could be used to purchase a hose nozzle.
“We said, ‘Javier what are you gonna do with that?’ He said ‘Papa needs one.’ Papa is the pastor of his orphanage,” Rodrigue explained. “(Javier) wasn’t picking out anything for himself; he was looking to buy something for someone else.”
Preparing for Christ’s birth
The Adopt-an-Orphan Tree is one of three parish-coordinated opportunities for charitable giving at St. Charles Borromeo every Advent.
During the first week of the season, children from the school and parish school of religion buy gifts for children their own age that are distributed to needy families in the community by the parish’s Ministry of Care group.
The following week, a “Senior Wishes Tree” is set up inside the church, listing items requested by about 160 residents of Ormond Nursing Home. Gifts from this effort were distributed by Fountain of Youth members as part of their Dec. 14 Christmas party for the seniors, complete with Santa and his elves.
A parish passion for Mexico
The Adopt-an-Orphan Tree is just one part of the parish’s year-round commitment to bringing Christ to the orphans of Piedras Negras, most of whom were rendered parentless through abandonment, abuse or bereavement. For example, Fountain of Youth members hold garage sales to offset annual school tuition costs of $300 per child, and parish ministries such as the Men’s Club frequently drop off checks in support of the various mission trips.
The All-Star Foundation, a non-profit launched two years ago by Fountain of Youth member Tasha Trosclair, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for Casa Bethesda. The money, raised through an annual golf tournament, has funded the construction of two handicapped-accessible bathrooms and a second-floor addition of bedrooms. Proceeds from this year’s golf tournament will enable Casa Bethesda to hire two fulltime staff people for a year.
“The people (in Piedras Negras) think of us as family,” said Rodrigue, who in her decade of service to the area has become the godmother to seven orphaned children. She said her happiest moments have been when the orphans, including groups of siblings, are adopted into loving, faith-filled families.
“People always say, ‘You’re going to Mexico; it’s so dangerous,’ but we’ve been going there so long the people know us,” Rodrigue said. “It’s a little, bitty community. The priest at the Catholic church there has been there 51 years, so the people know him; they respect him; the people know we stay at the orphanage with him, so they watch out for us.”
Rodrigue works relentlessly to convince others of this, knowing that St. Charles Borromeo – the only outside group that currently visits the Mexican city’s Catholic orphanages – can’t do it alone. Recently, she took a group of Catholic youth ministers from other states to the area to show them around.
“If I can get more youth ministers to meet the people and fall in love with what I’ve fallen in love with,” Rodrigue said, “then hopefully they’ll start bringing more youth there.”
Contributions to the Adopt-an-Orphan Tree will be taken up at St. Charles Borromeo Church during all Masses the weekend of Dec. 20-21. For more information, call the parish office at (985) 764-6383.