Forgotten children of Christmas embraced by love

Peter Finney Jr    She was 6 years old, shy and poor, and this was the week before Christmas and her father was in prison.
    In Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Christmas Carol,” Tiny Tim was physically disabled and impoverished, but at least he had two parents who loved and cared for him.
    And so the girl who walked into St. Mary’s Academy for the Christmas party last year didn’t know what to expect.
    “We were talking about Christmas, and she told me she only had one present under the tree,” said Shatarra Gibson, director of Catholic Charities’ Cornerstone Builders program that helps families impacted by incarceration. “When Santa called her name, she went up, and then all of a sudden she was standing behind me.”
    The girl was waiting to unwrap her present in front of Gibson, who then told her there were a few more presents for her that she hadn’t seen.
    “We walked over to a table and there was a stack of presents taller than she was,” Gibson said. “She was sitting in a chair, and she didn’t know what to do with all those gifts.”
    Thinking for a second, Gibson said the girl made a “grown-up” decision.
    “She opened up one of her presents – it was the doll she had asked for – and then she decided to take all the rest of her gifts home and open them up on Christmas morning,” Gibson said. “That’s my favorite memory.”
    Providing a bountiful Christmas for children whose parents are in prison fell to the students of St. Mary’s Academy and the Sisters of the Holy Family. Over the last several weeks, each class, from Montessori through 12th grade, took on the responsibility of collecting Christmas presents for 33 children who have at least one parent in jail.
    Sister of the Holy Family Judith Therese Barial, who teaches calculus and physics at St. Mary’s, said last Saturday’s Christmas party was the biggest one yet. St. Mary’s Academy has been helping out kids for Christmas since 2006, when students adopted homeless children whose families had been living in tents in Duncan Plaza.
    The sisters’ outreach to Cornerstone Builders has gone far beyond the Christmas feast. Once a year, a bus leaves the Sisters of the Holy Family motherhouse to take family members on a four-hour trip to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in Tallulah, La., just west of Vicksburg, Miss.
    The 230-mile drive up to Tallulah was very quiet last year.
    “When we got there, there were these big round tables where families could sit together,” Sister Judith Therese said. “One grandmother brought this lady’s three children, and she had a baby in arms who was about 9 months old. The grandmother gave the baby to her mother, and the baby kept looking back at the grandmother. The mother kept saying, ‘Baby, I’m your mom.’ The baby didn’t know where to look.”
    This kind of outreach to children is personal to Sister Judith Therese. Her brother battled drugs for 20 years before turning his life around, “so I know what it does to a family.” After 47 years as a teacher, she is preparing in January to become a mentor for a child who has a parent in jail.
    “I’ve worked at a lot of different places and worked with very poor people, and I also know that even our kids at school are suffering from dysfunctional families,” Sister Judith Therese said. “Just to be able to help one child know that she is worthy, no matter what is happening in her family, is so important. It’s not a reflection on the child.”
    The Cornerstone Builders children’s program continues to need mentors, especially male adults. Harold Patin, who saw the darkest shadows of life as a supervisory special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, read a bulletin announcement at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church one Sunday and decided to go all in.
    “Father Tony (Rigoli) mentioned that they were looking for mentors, and I thought it would be something that would be good for me to try in helping kids,” Patin said. “I like to help people more than just put a few dollars in the plate.”
    Now Patin is a mentor to not one but two 12-year-olds – Luke and Anthony.
    “I take them to eat food they’ve never eaten before,” Patin said. “They love lobster, and they never had it before. I took them to Drago’s, and they could eat any lobster they wanted. They had lobster coming out of their ears.”
    They now also own every NBA and NFL video game in existence, and they have a male in their life to talk to about their problems. Patin has used his underworld drug experience to send them a loving message.
    “I tell Luke, ‘If I can do one thing for you, I want to show you that if you work hard, study hard and stay out of crime and drugs, you have just as good a chance of being a huge success in your life and being a very happy man as anybody else,’” Patin said. “I tell him, ‘I want you to do that. You don’t owe me anything. But one day, when you become a successful man at whatever career you pick out, maybe you’ll find a kid like you were when I found you, and you can pay it forward.’”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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