Anger and fear. Sadness and loneliness. A feeling that nobody truly sees you – or truly cares.
“Mine are the children whose patients’ wounds you cannot see, and my children have wounds that cannot be healed with medicine alone,” explained Michele Czechowski, director of St. Francis Medical Center’s CARES Program, which aims to help those ages 3-21 with severe emotional, behavioral or psychiatric needs.
However, thanks to the generosity of the Diocese of Trenton’s 31 elementary schools, Czechowski’s patients – and the young patients of nearly 10 hospitals around the state – will know someone holds them close in heart.
“Sometimes only a child can make another child smile, so thank you,” she said.
Czechowski was among the more than 100 students, principals, teachers, parents and hospital representatives gathered May 7 in the Diocesan Chancery, Lawrenceville, for a news conference to highlight the success of the second annual service project known as “Hearts to Hospitals: Hearts to Lead – Hands to Help.” They were joined by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.
“Anybody can do service,” Bishop O’Connell told the 60 or so student representatives in attendance. “What makes the difference for us in Catholic schools is that we do service because of our faith. There’s a connection between what we do and who we are and who we believe in – the Lord Jesus. That’s why we serve. We listen to his words, ‘I have come to serve and not to be served.’
“That’s the example and the witness that he asks of us in our Catholic schools,” the Bishop continued. “Catholic schools have always done projects of service, but this one gives a special highlight to that during the year.”
Over the past months, schoolchildren in each of the Diocese’s elementary schools have been working to collect small gifts, toys and gift cards, create get-well cards, make blankets and write notes to kids undergoing care in area hospitals and their families throughout the four counties.
“I want to tell you why your donations are so special,” Alexis D’Anton, community engagement coordinator for Children’s Specialized Hospital, said to the students.
Talking about its long-term care unit in Toms River, she told the story of 3-year-old boy who was born deaf and blind and has cerebral palsy. He lives at the facility because his parents passed away.
“Because of your donations last year, he was able to go out to the movies for his birthday, and we were able to give him a really great birthday present,” D’Anton explained. “You guys became his family last year, and you’re his family again this year. We’re so incredibly grateful.”
Explaining that there are 30 other children in the long-term unit, she said, “Without your donations, we just wouldn’t be able to give them the experiences they truly deserve.”
Last year, “Hearts to Hospitals” collected more than $13,000 and more than 10,000 gifts. Judy Nicastro of the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools said this year’s collection was on track to equal and surpass the amount.
“What that says is that you understand that you are bigger than just your schools or just yourselves and that you can go forward in this day of service … you understand what it is like to go forward and help other people,” she said.
“Collectively, look what you’ve done. It is very real what you did,” Nicastro said, gesturing to the stacks of items displayed around the room, which was only a sampling of what was collected.
“What this project is, is we as a Catholic community – a group of Catholic schools altogether, 31 in four counties, in one of the most populous states in the United States getting together for a collective project,” said Nicastro, coordinator of the service project.
Anthony Caporaso, a seventh-grade representative from St. Mary School, Middletown, wore a shy smile of pride as he spoke of helping others. “It felt good for our school to come together for those kids who don’t really have anything,” he said.
Colin Cottrell, an eighth-grader in Holy Cross School, Rumson, said it was fulfilling to participate in a project as a school. “We knew it was for a good cause so it was really motivating to get it done.”
One aspect of the gathering was to encourage the student representatives, parents and teachers to take the messages of gratitude and hospital stories of hope back to their school communities.
One parent did just that. Jean Reilly, a parent of two student representatives from St. Rose School, Belmar, wrote an email to her school’s officials, saying the news conference and project demonstrated the invaluable worth of a Catholic education.
“The diocesan Day of Service event was a wonderful learning experience for Jack and Teresa … a great teaching moment that helped [them] grow in an understanding of what their faith is all about,” she said. “On the way home, Jack explained to me, ‘Sometimes if something is a little thing, but it’s good, it can grow into a big thing that is good.’”