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 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," honors 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.
Bishop Daniel Fernandez Torres of Arecibo, 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 Sept. 19 statement. "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, 1 percent of all children on the island are victims of maltreatment, and the parents are the perpetrators 92 percent of the time.
Over the years, Chicago-based Catholic Extension has contributed more than $260,000 to Santa Teresita Home. Extension has contributed nearly $6 million over the past five years to various programs and initiatives in Puerto Rico. Arbelo's $25,000 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.
Father 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 an Oct. 19 Mass in Arecibo. She is the first recipient from Puerto Rico.
Catholic Extension is a national fundraising organization founded in 1905 to support the work and ministries of mission dioceses in the U.S. and its territories.