Friday, September 19, 2008

Sisters of Charity Material Aid

Miami nuns put politics aside to help storm-battered Cuba


Miami Herald Sep. 18, 2008

Behind the yellow tape blocking the side street in a residential neighborhood in Miami, dozens of volunteers under white tents pack empty Corona boxes with juice, beans, rice and medicines. Sister Rafaela Gonzalez, a sprightly 75, directs the action as the beep, beep, beep of a forklift topped with bottles of water alerts volunteers to move out of the way.

''This has been my job for 30 years,'' she says, smiling.

Her ''job'' in the Catholic order of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul is to serve the poor with good deeds as much as kind words. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless -- Catholic works of mercy that know no political boundaries, only God's love.

As people from Miami to Washington debate loosening travel rules or the U.S. trade embargo toward Cuba after two back-to-back hurricanes, the nuns have nothing to debate. Their No. 1 job is saving lives as much as souls. The politicians and the demagogues can point fingers and raise suspicion about donated goods being skimmed by Cuban government officials, but the nuns have 14 years of experience seeing their containers get in the right hands.

Now is no time to debate. It's time to do -- and our community knows it.

The Daughters of Charity have found overwhelming support from South Florida residents eager to help more than a million Cubans left homeless by hurricanes Gustav and Ike. They're also helping direct supplies to two local Catholic churches -- Notre Dame and St. James -- that are organizing shipments to Haiti.

In just six days, the sisters have sent four 40-foot containers with $100,000 worth of food, water and medicines to the Port of Havana. Two of those containers already are feeding people in hard-hit Pinar del Río province. On Thursday, they prepared another two long containers as dozens of volunteers worked in synchronized fashion to categorize and pack boxes and fill the trucks.

Hialeah High School students dropped off a truckload of donated goods by noon. The mail carrier dropped off donations from as far as California. The phone wouldn't stop ringing.


It all started with Sister Hilda Alonso, the 87-year-old nun who heads the Daughters of Charity in Miami. She ran the Colegio La Inmaculada, a school for girls in Havana before the revolution closed Catholic schools and kicked out priests and nuns. After teaching and running schools in Puerto Rico, and working in Haiti to open St. Vincent de Paul orders -- ''the need was so great'' -- she started her mission in Miami.

Since 1994, the six nuns have sent containers to Cuba with donated food, medicines and even medical equipment to help pregnant women, children with Down syndrome, patients with leprosy and the elderly in church-run retirement homes.

For years, her former Inmaculada students have dropped by the nuns' tidy, spare home with donations, knowing they will get to the right people.

As she sat at her metal desk next to her twin-size bed with a white cotton cover in her little bedroom, Sor Hilda, as the sister is called in Spanish, noted that by the end of this week the nuns will have shipped about six containers -- as much as they usually do in the entire year.

''It's been extraordinary, the generosity of those who live here,'' she told me, adding that people of all ethnicities were coming by to give.

It's not just goods -- it's also money that's needed. It costs $5,000 to ship a 40-foot container to Cuba.

I had heard about Sor Hilda's good works for years, and this summer I had visited her with a friend to learn more about this little woman from tobacco country in Pinar del Río who has taken on such a mammoth job. For all her years of hard work, she's still the Energizer Bunny -- but without the drums to call attention to herself.

As one Inmaculada volunteer told me Thursday about the nun she knew in Cuba, ``She is humility personified.''


Now the sisters are working around the clock to get emergency aid to Cuba. The sisters have a long record of getting U.S.-licensed goods to the island without Cuban government interference. Sor Hilda has gone there herself to ensure goods get to the nuns in La Víbora neighborhood in Havana who then distribute the donations.

The nuns in Cuba go to the docks and inspect the containers -- then one will ride with a trusted driver to make sure the food gets to those who need it and doesn't end up in the black market.

''We are sending to the places that have seen the worst devastation,'' she said.

Next week, the nuns will start collecting sheets and other needs. But today, it's all about food, water and other essentials.

Most of all, it's about unconditional love.

The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul are accepting food, water, medicine and linens for hurricane victims in Cuba at 500 NW 63rd Ave., Miami. Or call 305-266-6485 for more information.

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