By Fr. Jack Nuelle, M. S.
I would like to tell you a story - a true story – of a young girl with a big heart, a wild imagination and a far-reaching vision that empowerher. Arpita Joyce is her name. Although she now lives in Massachusetts, she was living in Pennsylvania at the time. But her roots were farther still. She was born in India and came to the United States at the age of three. Today she is ten years old, but this story really begins about four years ago.
The Birth of a Marvelous Idea
One evening, when she was six, she was taking a walk in the neighborhood with her dad. Earlier she had been watching television and saw some pictures of poor, emaciated children. As she walked along, she spied a few pennies on the sidewalk. She had often seen coins in the road and on the sidewalk, but usually she remembered her mother’s stern warning: “Outside the house don’t pick up things you find on the ground! You never know where they came from or who has handled them.” But this evening, as she looked at those few pennies, something felt different. After recently seeing some pictures of poor starving kids in Africa, her first thought was: “These pennies would be worth their weight in gold for those poor starving kids in Africa.” And then she did the unthinkable; she stretched out her tiny fingers and picked them up. Then she turned to her dad and said: “Daddy, I want to use these pennies to start a project to help poor children in Africa so they can have food to eat and clothes to wear. This money can help the poorest of the poor.” And so the project “Pennies For Africa” was born.
This was such a big project for so small child. Was it just a passing fancy? How could she make a difference? How would she reach out to Africa, so big, so far away, so different, and so unknown? What country would it actually
go to? How would she get the money there? Was this, in reality, a realizable vision or just a little girl’s fantasy?
Those “adult thoughts” never entered her mind. Arpita did not know the value of money. Moreover, why bother with pennies? What are they worth anyway? All she knew was that a penny is money, and money can buy food and clothes for those poor kids in Africa. So she wondered, “How can I get a lot of pennies?”
A Little Girl on a Mission
She had a mission. She told some friends and her enthusiasm caught on. One friend was going to have a birthday party. So she sent word to those invited to the party. The invitation said something like: “Don’t bring me any wrapped up gifts. Just bring money so we can put it in the fund to help poor children in Africa.” At the end of her birthday party, all the money she had received was given to Arpita. These children would never meet Arpita face to face, yet a bond of charity was mysteriously created. This project expressed a beautiful child’s generous faith and life-giving spirituality! The project was now off and running.
She got her parents to contribute something each month. Then she asked relatives and friends to do the same. Like so many young children today, Arpita was quite well-versed in fundamental computer skills and, although she didn’t yet know the value of money, she did know the value of the Internet. She wondered how she could use its vast power? She turned to a close family friend – she calls him “Uncle Dirk” – who knew how to set up a web site. He did just that and soon her dream was out there for all to see and to share. PenniesForAfrica. com began flying in cyberspace and now all the children of the world – and adults too – could join in her quest to help, as she says so often, “the poorest of the poor kids in Africa.”
She Wanted to Do More for Those Poor Kids
However she didn’t just want to send money. She wanted to get in contact with those poor kids. She wanted to learn about their life, their
villages, their churches, their schools, what toys they had, what food they liked, what dreams they had for the future. To do this she and her new young friends had to be able to communicate with each other. But if they are really poor, they would not have computers. However they could become pen-pals and write back and forth.
So now that adult question came into play. Who would she help? With whom could she communicate? Through a friend of the family, Fr. Stan Kennedy, M.S., she learned of the work being done by the La Salette Mission Center. With her dad she came to see me, Fr. Jack. She asked if I could help her in her mission? Did I know of somewhere in Africa where “the poorest of the poor” could be helped? Those kids would have to know English in order to write letters and share ideas?
As God’s providence would have it, the La Salette Missionaries from Angola had accepted a mission in the neighboring country of Namibia where one of the official languages was English. So I wrote to Fr. Avelino Sangameya, M.S. who was pastor of the mission in Opuwo in northwestern Namibia. In this arid land, fathers of families often have a difficult time providing for the basic necessities of life. In my letter I explained the situation and the conditions posed by Arpita. Did he know of poor, African children who could speak some English and would be willing to write? And if he did know of any children like that, would he be willing to cooperate with her in fulfilling her dream?
God Loves the Little Children of the World
There was no doubt about the meaning of his response, which probably broke a speed record for a letter coming from Africa. “Yes, certainly,” he wrote. “Your letter was the answer to our prayers. Because we lack adequate funds, we are on the verge of closing our parish kindergarten program. Recognizing that our kindergarten program is a tremendous help to our people, we have been searching for ways to keep it open and pay the teachers. We have found none! Then I received your letter. After reading it I shouted, ‘Yes, God loves us! Yes, God really does love the children!’”
I called Arpita’s dad and they came to see me. They were delighted with the response. What a sense of fulfillment it was for Arpita a few weeks later to hand me those first fruits of her labor of love — $1,300.00. I sent them to Fr. Avelino, who wrote me back saying: “Wow! Your last letter, along with the money, left me speechless. You know, Fr. Jack, I told the parishioners about it last Sunday at the end of the Mass. You can’t imagine the joy with which they received the news. After that I returned to the sacristy and the teachers followed me there. As I turned to speak with them, I could see the tears flowing from their eyes. I was so moved that my tears began to flow also.”
This offering was the outcome of a child’s spirituality, an outpouring of charity in a child’s way that was joyful and, in no way, demeaning. Now when they all write back and forth, the pages are filled with much more than words. Drawings of butterflies, hearts, clouds and the like are so essential for one child’s heart to speak to the heart of another.
Helping Mentally and Physically Challenged Children
The project has grown. Arpita has collected and sent over $24,000.00 in these last four years. Her small project has now expanded
to include children in the “Beautiful Gate” handicap center in Morondava, Madagascar, which helps feed, clothe, educate and rehabilitate both mentally and physically challenged children and youth. Who knows where it will spread to next!
This fund-raising project is far from a typical one. Her story was printed in the Boston Globe on Thursday, March 16, 2006. She has even written to the direction of the Fleet Center in Boston, asking to put some recepticles there with a sign: PenniesForAfrica.com, sponsored by the La Salette Mission Center. Arpita’s success is the result of a child’s spirituality that seems to have no bounds, that is willing to reach across time, space, culture and ethnicity to care for “the poorest of the poor” and to show them, as she says, “that God loves them very much.”
The next time you are on the Internet, look up the web site PenniesForAfrica.com and perhaps you will also hear the echo of Jesus’ words in your heart: “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Mt 19:14) Then see if you, like Arpita, still have the wonderful heart of a child.