By Christina Leslie | Staff Writer
A Catholic school in Medford has issued an enthusiastic “yes” to their missionary call just in time to make Christmas for the children in a Third World orphanage a little brighter. In less than three weeks, the school community of St. Mary of the Lakes collected hundreds of toys and monetary gifts to present to Sister Lisa Marie Valenti, a missionary who serves in a Dominican Republic orphanage.
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Sister Lisa Marie, a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, contacted Nina Hoover, the school’s principal, asking for donations of gifts to make Christmas for the children in a Dominican Republic orphanage a bit brighter. The nun had partnered with the Medford school before; this past fall, $850 had been raised during a car wash for the religious sister’s efforts to serve disadvantaged children abroad, a story the religious shared during this year’s Catholic Schools Mass celebrated in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.
Hoover recalled, “Sister Lisa Marie was in need of 1,000 gifts [and suggested] small cars for boys and small dolls for girls. Our response was an immediate and resounding yes. We embarked on this mission of love with gusto, and involved our entire school community of students and their families, faculty and staff.”
Hoover and school religious coordinator, Mary K. Henrichsen, coordinated the effort, and were soon astonished by the enthusiastic response from the 378-student body and their families. Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, box after box of small metal cars and dolls purchased from a local department store began to fill Hoover’s office, as did checks from those eager to help.
The final tally of gifts and checks was revealed during an assembly Dec. 22 to welcome Sister Lisa Marie and attended by the entire school. Father Daniel Swift, pastor, led the children in prayer, reminding them they “were a light to those who have less.” Hoover recounted anecdotes about families dropping off dozens of dolls and cars, and slipping bills into her hand to be added to the monetary donation for Sister Lisa’s orphanage.
Henrichsen revealed the children had far surpassed their original goal of 1,000 small gifts: the St. Mary of the Lakes family had donated 782 dolls and 959 cars for their fellow Catholics in the Dominican Republic, for a total of 1,741 items to make the children’s Christmas brighter.
“Wow! A million times, wow!” Sister Lisa gasped, wiping happy tears from her eyes. The gifts would be distributed to the orphans in time for Jan. 6, the Feast of Epiphany, she explained.
“We have to tell the children that sometimes, the Three Kings come, and sometimes they don’t,” she said frankly of the poverty-stricken nation, “but this year, they are coming!”
“We are all missionaries,” the religious continued. “Our missionary call is to be priest, prophet and king. Each one of you are like kings.” Sister Lisa Marie then slipped a guitar strap over her shoulder and led the students in song, teaching them the Spanish and English lyrics to “This Little Light of Mine.”
The generosity of the staff continued even after the assembly, Hoover reported. A check for $250 to Sister Lisa to use for expenses soon grew to $900 with a spontaneous additional donation from faculty and staff. The religious announced the money would be used to equip the orphanage school bus with new tires.
“Prayer is a great gift we can give,” Hoover concluded. Addressing the grateful missionary nun, she told her, “We will keep your children wrapped in prayer.”
The seventh grade students assisted Sister Lisa Marie in packing the toys into a large ice hockey equipment bag after the assembly. Many reflected upon the reasons for their generosity towards the children under her care.
“People these days want expensive toys,” said Samantha Poljevka. “These children are happy with just one truck or doll.”
Nick Tamburro added, “The children in the Dominican Republic live in poverty. We have much to give.”
“It’s cool to do things for other people,” said David Alleva. “The school we go to is a Catholic school which teaches us Catholic values and to do what is right.”
“We learned in religion class that God does good deeds with small acts of kindness, even prayer,” said Kyle Aski.