By NANCY SCHWERIN
HILTON HEAD — The students at St. Francis School may be young, but they understand the act of Christian giving. They have gotten a jump-start on this actuality of the Catholic faith by leading the pack in helping one Jamaican community.
The Mustard Seed Communities is a non-profit Catholic organization that has been operating in the downtrodden areas of Kingston, Jamaica, since 1979. The communities focus on the care of abandoned, physically, and mentally handicapped children. The children are nurtured from birth to reach their full potential. Communities or homes are set up to care for the children as they reach various stages of development. The Jamaican government does not provide facilities for the disabled, so Mustard Seed workers have taken it upon themselves to care for these children throughout their adult lives.
While several teen-age and young adult groups take mission trips to Mustard Seed during the year, St. Francis is the only elementary school working from afar to further the communities’ efforts, according to Cecilia De Sanctis, coordinator of the Atlanta Friends of Mustard Seed Communities. De Sanctis coordinates groups throughout the United States who are eager to get involved with the community.
Since last fall, students at St. Francis have participated in monthly collections, which are sent to Mustard Seed. Diapers, food, and stuffed animals were some of the items collected for the outreach. The upper grades were paired with children at Mustard Seed, for whom they pray daily.
Father Michael McCafferty, pastor at the thriving Hilton Head parish, asked Father Gregory Ramkissoon, executive director of Mustard Seed, to speak on spirituality at a Lenten mission in 1999.
“He was very inspiring,” said Ellen Judge. “He definitely inspired my heart.”
Judge is chairperson for the outreach program at St. Francis. After Father Ramkissoon’s visit, Mustard Seed was a likely choice for St. Francis’ generosity.
Brother Garvin Augustine, a Mustard Seed Communities worker, visited the Lowcountry in September and gave Judge a list of things that the workers and children could use. While visiting he spoke to the students and tried to describe to them the condition in which the Jamaican children live.
“The children (at St. Francis) are very young, and they were very responsive,” said De Sanctis. “We don’t want to frighten the children (by revealing too much of the Third World realities), but their response was wonderful and touching.”
The children were asked how they feel when they’re hungry and were amazed when told $20 could feed a family of four for a week.
At the school a bulletin board displays a map locating Jamaica and a collection of photos of the children in the Mustard Seed communities.
At the start of the program, the students were asked what they could do to help their less fortunate counterparts. They suggested collections and a change jar. The five-gallon jar is a quarter of the way full with the kids’ donations.
St. Francis by the Sea Parish has also gotten involved. The CCD classes participated in the monthly collections, and a road race last year collected more than $5,000 for Mustard Seed.
“St. Francis has been very active in adopting Mustard Seed and promoting the entire concept of relating people to another culture,” said De Sanctis.
Judge sent letters to all the families explaining the efforts and how St. Francis was getting involved.
“As part of a Catholic school, we’re trying to exude, not only responsibility to ourselves, but to other people,” said Judge.
The school and parish have made a commitment to support Mustard Seed for another year, in which they will be “twinning” with them as a sister school/parish, supporting and praying for them.
Joan Carey, St. Francis’ pastoral associate, recently returned from an international planning meeting at the Mustard Seed Communities in Jamaica. She worked with Father Ramkissoon in the past through Food for the Poor and has gathered support for the Caribbean mission from the Hilton Head community.
“The children (at Mustard Seed) are very, very happy. They smile and laugh all the time,” she said. “They are an example for all of us. They are God’s precious ones.”
While remaining a grassroots effort, the Mustard Seed Communities is becoming an international force by spreading its wings in countries like Nicaragua, Haiti and a possible mission in Zimbabwe.
“The more help we get and the more children we can take in, the greater our effect will be in the countries we serve,” said De Sanctis.
In the past year, about 2,000 people went down to Jamaica on mission trips. De Sanctis is earnestly working to spread news about Mustard Seed throughout the United States. Efforts in the past have been concentrated in the Southeast, but the word is spreading.
“The impact has been really great; we have been very graciously received,” she said.
“The focus seems to be building,” she added, with organizations like St. Francis, who saw a need and are leading the pack in filling it.