For Local Augustinians, Mission Can Be Found Just Across the Border
SAN DIEGO — There is nothing about the Order of St. Augustine that makes that religious community the obvious choice to support an orphanage.
But, since 1975, Augustinian priests and brothers in San Diego have worked tirelessly to provide funds and oversight for Hogar Infantil La Gloria (www.hogar-infantil.org), which is managed by a Tijuana-based nonprofit.
“We didn’t set out to do this,” Augustinian Father John Keller said with a chuckle. But the Augustinians recognized a need and were in a position to help, explained Father Keller, who serves as president of the board of directors of Hogar Infantil, Inc., the California-based nonprofit that raises funds to operate the orphanage.
“The Augustinian charism is to go where the Church calls us and to be nimble and light enough on our feet that we can respond to needs as they present themselves,” agreed Augustinian Father Kirk Davis, who serves as treasurer for Hogar Infantil, Inc.
Hogar Infantil La Gloria was founded in the La Gloria neighborhood of Tijuana, at the site of what had previously been a poorly administered home for abandoned children and abandoned elderly.
A group of lay Catholics stepped in to establish the present day orphanage. They invited the Augustinians, with whom they had been working on a low-income housing project in San Ysidro, to partner with them.
Today, Hogar Infantil is home to more than 30 children, both boys and girls, who range in age from newborns to teenagers. Children come to live at the orphanage for a variety of reasons. Some have no parents, but for many, their parents or extended families are simply unable to care for them at this time. Perhaps the parents are struggling with alcohol or drug dependency. They might be incarcerated or simply lack the financial resources. Though the youth will eventually age out of the program, Father Davis said that, for those teenagers who are enrolled in school and are working toward a better future, the Augustinians are “committed to walking with them” for as long as they need. “We’re essentially the only family they have, so we envision a continuing relationship,” he said, whether that means providing them with tuition assistance, housing assistance or some other form of help.
Hogar Infantil, Inc. is committed to raising about $200,000 a year for the orphanage, whose operating budget is between $160,000 and $180,000. Those funds provide food, clothing, housing, and transportation to school and to other activities, as well as utilities and building maintenance. “Places like ours are dependent on the good will of people and charity to fund them,” said Father Keller, who along with Father Davis, delivered mission appeals at local parishes this past summer. St. Augustine High School and the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, as well as the Augustinian-run Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai, chip in to support the orphanage.
Father Keller said Saints students alone raise about $15,000 every year through a variety of activities. Joined by their counterparts at OLP, Saints students also pay a monthly visit to Hogar Infantil. The week before each visit, they plan an activity to do with the orphanage’s residents. For example, Father Davis recalls the time when one Saints student demonstrated how to make ice cream — and provided each child with a tasty frozen treat.
Elizabeth Alla Gravitt, 17, is president of the Hogar Infantil club at OLP. Now in her senior year, she joined the club as a sophomore and “fell in love” with the orphanage. She has visited Hogar Infantil almost 10 times. One of her treasured memories from those visits was her interaction with a baby named Andrea during Mass. The baby was fascinated by her necklace and earrings and kept playing with them. Gravitt lovingly traced Andrea’s hand with her finger, and was touched when the baby reciprocated that gesture later in the liturgy. Toward the end of Mass, Andrea fell asleep on her chest. “I know it may not be big, but to me that was the best feeling in the world,” Gravitt said. “Knowing that I was there and making her feel loved for the time I held her just filled my heart.”
For their own part, the youthful residents of Hogar Infantil are appreciative of what they have received and compassionate toward those who are in even greater need. When he celebrates Mass for them, Father Davis said, he hears their “prayers of gratitude,” as well as their prayers “for those who have less.” He also recounted a touching story of how the orphanage’s children have befriended a young girl with special needs who lives in the neighborhood and has been the target of bullying. Her father arranged for her to be able to spend a few hours a week at the orphanage. “It humbles me and it really warms my heart to see the kindness that they have for this person that they perceive as, in a lot of ways, being even more at the margins than they are,” Father Davis said.
Even as they made mission appeals on behalf of the orphanage, Father Keller and Father Davis recognized that many people associate missionary work with bringing the Good News to people in a far-off land, but the Augustinians have found the missions just across the border.
“Sometimes we sort of cast our eyes at the horizon or beyond it when we’re looking to really serve those most in need, and sometimes that need is actually Lazarus at the gate,” added Father Davis, referencing Jesus’ parable about the rich man who ignored the beggar who was just outside his door. “I think this is certainly a case of that. “It’s a mission we’re passionate about,” he continued. “It’s a mission that’s both foreign and very close to home at the same time.”
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