.- For the past 14 years, a Missouri parish has been sending select teenagers on mission trips to the doors of Hour Children in Long Island City, NY.
“This is a great story of volunteerism and churches reaching out to the needy across the country,” said Sister Teresa Fitzgerald, C.S.J., executive director of Hour Children.
She is better known as Sister Tesa, the organization’s founder whose efforts began over two decades ago in the mid-1980s, when she and other sisters from St. Rita’s Convent provided homes to children of imprisoned women.
Hour Children was formally launched in 1995, when it began taking care of jailed mothers in addition to caring for their children. They have since expanded to three communal homes open to mothers who are just coming out of prison with a baby or who are being reunited with a child that was in foster care. They also recently initiated the Hour Education and Advocacy Program at Riker’s Island, where teachers and volunteers provide workshops for pregnant women and new mothers.
Their name observes the time a child spends waiting to see his or her mother in prison.
Last week, surrounded by smiling toddlers at the Hour Children Early Learning Daycare, Sister Tesa engaged the two- and three-year olds as they sat down for their afternoon snacks.
“The children at the center have moms in a working program,” she explained. “Many of the children spent their first year or a part of their life inside the walls of a prison.”
The center, staffed with three teachers in each room of eight children, “is manageable, but it’s helpful when people come and volunteer,” said Stephanie Gonzalez, an assistant teacher there for the past year. “It provides more one-on-one time.”
This particular week, young women in bright pink T-shirts help Gonzalez and her colleagues.
They are volunteers from St. Mark’s parish in Independence, Missouri, who make the 1,200-mile trip once, sometimes twice, a year. This summer marks their 14th year volunteering at Hour Children.
It began one summer when Sister Tesa had the House for Children, and two young people came from the parish to spend an extended amount of time volunteering there. That meant helping with the most simple – and special – of tasks, driving the children up and down to see their mothers who were incarcerated at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and staying with the sisters at My Mother’s House, the first Hour Children home.
The organization provides services to women incarcerated at Albion, Beacon, Taconic, Bedford and Bayview Correctional Facilities.
“I remember getting the call, explaining they were hosting a mission trip and wanted to know if Hour Children would host them,” Sister Tesa said. “I said ‘Yes!’”
Almost 15 years later, St. Mark’s parish community continues that work.
“They are very much in sync with our mission and children’s mission,” Sister Tesa said. “We have volunteers that come through our doors from all over, but St. Mark’s is the only parish that spends an entire week with us.”
Hilda Beck, the director of missions and social concerns at St. Mark’s, lead this summer’s mission trip of seven teens, ages 15-18. They are staying at the Hour Children House next to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Astoria, where they cook one evening out of the week and spend time with the residents there.
“The moms welcome us,” explained Beck, who is on her fourth mission trip to Hour Children. “When I first heard about the mission, I immediately thought, ‘This is something we have to continue!’”
Her daughter Jessica, now 18, is also on her fourth trip and is accompanied this year by her younger sister, Teresa, 14, who is volunteering for the first time.
The first trip Hilda and Jessica made “wasn’t at all what we expected!” Jessica said. “You think of New York City and that it’s big and fancy… It’s a culture shock.”
She explained, “The first year I came, I knew I’d be taking care of kids whose moms had been in prison and that we’d be staying with nuns. During my first trip, I knew just a little of the background of Hour Children and the inner workings… I have a better understanding of what goes on here now.”
The “inner workings” she described include everything from the actual rehabilitation that the mothers go through to seeing the youngsters grow into healthy and well-rounded children.
“When you think of kids being born in a prison, you get a little stereotypical,” she said. “You think they’re going to be ‘bad’ kids… But they aren’t at all.”
She said she first thought only about the children’s perspective, but never the mothers’. “I think this center is beneficial for them to know their children can be safe and that they have the opportunity to make a better life for them.”
She said leaving “is very hard” but Sister Tesa sends photos and drawings from the children to keep the volunteers updated throughout the year.
“It means a lot to the mothers to know there are people coming who care and spend their time and resources with their kids,” Sister Tesa said.
First-time volunteer Mariah Ketchum explained how “shockingly different” New York was from what she expected and how she first bought into the stereotype that “the children were going to be different because of their background.”
She continued, “Honestly, these kids are so well taken care of! To their moms, they are their whole life. When the moms pick them up, this incredible love is there.”
Another volunteer, 14-year-old Teresa Beck, said, “Back home, I thought everyone’s life was run the same – get up, go to work, come home – and being here, everyone’s life is different. Obviously some of the moms have grown up in a tough neighborhood and here I see them making a life for themselves and their children… I’ll take back to Missouri an entirely new perspective on moms and their children.”
“I think it’s very important for people to volunteer and to give a helping hand,” added Hilda Beck. “It’s not a hand down, it’s a hand up. We feel strongly that if we can change a child’s life by giving love, then we have truly lived the Gospel that God wants us to.”
Printed with permission from The Tablet, newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens.