by Catholic News Service
CHICAGO (CNS) — More than 100 first-graders, teachers and proud parents packed the cafeteria at a Catholic elementary school in Chicago to present their unique Lenten project gift to Catholic Extension, a national fundraising organization that supports the work and ministries of U.S. mission dioceses.
During an afternoon ceremony at Frances Xavier Warde School May 6, the first-graders handed Catholic Extension’s president, Father Jack Wall, a handmade oversized check for $11,025.11.
Inspired by the parable of the gold coins from St. Luke’s Gospel — in which the king’s servants were rewarded for making their treasure grow — each first-grader had been given $1 and the challenge to make it grow for a Catholic Extension-funded ministry during Lent.
This is the ninth year that the school’s first-graders have supported a Catholic Extension project, and this year the first-graders chose Cajun Camp, a two-week summer camp for deaf and deaf-blind children organized by the Office of Persons with Disabilities of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana.
Upon receiving the check, Father Wall expressed his gratitude and told the children how proud he was of their service and fundraising.
“You know how to care. You know how to help others,” he said. “These kids are just like you. They are good kids, they are caring kids, they are life-giving kids, but they need somebody to reach out and give them a hand and a little bit of help.”
At the ceremony, the youngsters stood on a stool to reach the podium microphone and share creative stories of service and giving. Students made everything from lemonade to cookies and cupcakes or did chores around the house to raise money.
One student, Megan Meyers, hosted an art show at her parents’ house and sold her paintings to teachers and family. Another one, Andi Ginder, said, “I sang six songs and put it on a CD. I then sold them to friends and family. I had fun doing it.”
Laila Valenti decided that she wanted to do a musical fundraiser and asked her big sister, Lena, a fourth-grader, who had done the Lenten project herself when she was a first-grader, to join her in a recital.
The two girls are accomplished musicians. Lena began playing the violin at age 3 and has added voice and piano to her repertoire. Laila got an even earlier start at age 2 — when she was the size of a violin herself — and has since added cello and voice. Both sing in their parish choir.
As music lovers, the idea of helping children who can’t enjoy the magical power of music was particularly compelling.
Faith plays a powerful role in motivating the girls to reach out to others. “We hear at Mass about the importance of helping people,” said Laila. They both do regular volunteer service projects such as helping at nursing homes and homeless shelters. And they have also held other concerts for charities.
Fifty people attended the Valentis’ recital, and the girls raised $1,500 for Cajun Camp.
“We think that everyone should have the same chances in life,” said Lena. “When they do, it brings less attention to the fact that someone is different and helps us realize that those differences don’t really matter. It’s important to support a camp where everyone fits in and can be confident about themselves. … It makes them feel good.”
Julie Caillouet, program coordinator for the Lafayette diocesan Office of Persons with Disabilities who oversees the camp, agreed. “As Christians, it is our responsibility to love and care for those with disabilities and to prevent discrimination. At the camp, we focus on morals and values.”
Cajun Camp serves deaf and deaf-blind children ages 5 to 13, many of whom come from families who struggle financially. The Catholic Extension support gives them the opportunity to attend a traditional summer camp with art and crafts, sports and field trips with others who all face the same physical challenges.
Caillouet said the support “allows us to provide more services for the campers, while keeping the costs affordable for our families.”
Frances Xavier Warde’s Lenten project for Catholic Extension was started eight years ago by the grade school’s religion teacher, Clare Hurrelbrink, who has helped it grow from year to year.
“Words do not do justice to telling you how humbled we are to have the opportunity to engage in this project every year,” Hurrelbrink said. “Who knew back in 2008, when our relationship with Catholic Extension began, that our first-graders would make their dollars grow into amounts we never could have imagined.”
“Through this initiative, it is our hope to raise awareness in our children of the importance of service to the community,” she said. “It is a lesson that highlights the Christian reality that it is in giving that we receive.”
Since its founding in 1905, Chicago-based Catholic Extension has distributed more than $1.2 billion in today’s dollars to provide funding and resources to dioceses and parishes that cannot support themselves.