To know how Sister Mariela is, we just need to ask her 17 or 18-year-old students who share with her diverse activities in the group “Footprints of Charity” to instantly get in response many phrases in unison: “She leaves a footprint”, “She is extremely simple, humble, easygoing; helps others and dedicates herself fully”, “She demands from us that we give the 101%”, “even if she has nothing, she makes the impossible, she has a clear need to serve the other”, “She is: Love your Neighbour”. In a few words they said the first thing that crossed their minds, with a cheerful and fresh spontaneity. It’s just that with her, these teenagers have been living and discovering since grade 7 the satisfaction of serving others, taking care of the ones with the utmost need as well as working for their community, caring, cleaning and rescuing parks and common spaces.
This is how Sister Mariela is, she moves around the Panamanian communities close to the city of Penonomé, in the geographical centre of the country, looking to help those in need. Due to the old age of her parents, she is on leave from her Colombian Congregation to be able to look after them in her native town. She devotes her mornings to the School Carmen Conte Lombardo in Churuquita Chiquita, and later she divides the rest of her day between her parents and the needs of the community. She walks incessantly, and reaches the farthest lost spots 4 hours away in 4×4 vehicles, to meet and get to know every family and old person living in the deep tropical forest. During the week, the groups prepare the grocery bags and on Saturday go out to distribute them among the old people who are in most need in the communities close by. The immense joy these kids emanate when telling us about their experiences reveals how much more one receives when giving, than when just receiving.
Sister Mariela is the bridge between everyone who surrounds her and their needs. She is capable of getting small things like a computer to large ones like a scholarship to study Medicine, or a bridge, literally. It is not that she has her special contacts, or a large bank account, it is just that she has enough faith to accept that all this comes not from her but from Someone above. She gets the most diverse requests, and she channels them through however way she thinks of at the moment, constantly emphasizing: “Ask me for help when you have done your 50% of the effort and there, we will organize ourselves to obtain the 50% missing.” She remembers the case of a young girl who was the best student and was longing with all her heart to study Medicine, an impossible dream for her family; Sister Mariela listened to her speech at the end of her school year, and she promised her that she would become a Doctor in front of the whole school. Later, thinking about her promise over and over, she realized that she had no idea how she would make it work. Her faith took her through a steep road of work and persistence, and with the 50% effort already done by the student with her medal of honour; she could get her a scholarship to study Medicine in Cuba. She gets things accomplished and these are not coincidences; she gives out her 101% to work out and help whoever needs it and with this mutual teamwork things find its way.
We were the main characters in one of these stories, when Sister Mariela told us about the need of a very good student, on his second year of Information Systems Degree, to whom it was becoming extremely hard to continue his studies because he was lacking a computer. With these few words we found the answer and destiny to our own computer who needed a new owner, someone who would value it and really needed it. The joy of Enrique when he received it in his hands was more than what his shyness could express. What is exceptionally interesting about this anecdote is that Sister Mariela had this issue pending for the last 3 months and didn’t know how to solve it, considering that she had promised Enrique to come back on Tuesday and it was Monday when we met her. We arrived unexpectedly, having never met each other, and she was the bridge to merge both needs.
She has even been asked to build a bridge, which shows us the lack of institutions facing the needs of the town. The rains during this time of the year make the ford impossible to get from one side to the other, forcing neighbours to cross it with the water reaching their waist or walking over a log in order to reach the main road. The day when they were forced to pull out an old lady from the water on their shoulders, was when they finally realized this couldn’t wait any longer. They got together, made raffles, sold food and even asked others for help. With a lot of effort they could build the sidewalk up to the ford, but a bridge to cross it was definitely out of their reach. With their 50% of effort already made, they consulted Sister Mariela, who called a journalist and they made a special program to show the needs of the place. Now they are waiting for an answer, which surely will not take long to arrive.
These communities are learning to be autonomous, joining efforts working toward the common good. By starting while they are young, they have enough energy to spread everywhere. Nobody is giving them a bridge, a scholarship, or a computer for free; on the contrary, they put in a lot of effort to get them. Something like “teach them how to fish, don’t give them directly the fish”, in a society that pretends every day more gifts or handouts.
These are some of the stories of this Sister who moves around the Panamenean communities of the countryside of Penonomé, walking its land and helping others with the unconditional assistance of her great Ally, to whom she offers her life serving others. She reaches schools that are far away and almost no resources, becoming the bridge between the kids who have food shortage and whose soup escapes thru a crack in the bowl, and those who need a formal request in order to give a hand. She knows that with only one email to someone she knows in Panamá city, she can connect both needs; one need to give and the other need to receive, providing them both with the chance to make their hearts bigger. With just a few plates, glasses and cutlery, she changed the life of more than 180 kids.
We wonder: Where does this whirlwind of energy come from to make her help everyone? Sincerely, it is not like that with all of us. She remembers that since she was a little girl, her family was always very humble and her dad would always visit an old man who was living alone. Sometimes he would bring him home and ask his wife to feed him: “My mom had the specific instruction of feeding Mr. Thereso, even if he came alone without my dad; and also when he finished my mom would give him a full grocery bag for the rest of the week. I will never forget that. Also, in harvest time, for the feast of Saint John of God, the patron of the poor, in my town Natá de los Caballeros, we would get together, those who had some food to share with those who needed food. So, my dad would bring 2 bags to share out of the total 4 bags of the harvest, and we would distribute them in small and equal bags for everyone who descended from the hills.”
She sums up her Faith like “the encounter with the living God through the brothers” and to that she consecrates 101% of her energy. She devotes her life to her neighbour, to everyone who needs help, whether it is within her reach or not, because she moves heaven and earth to get it. At school, everybody wants to participate in her workshops of “Footprints of Charity”, because that special enthusiasm that she generates on the young ones is very contagious. She emphasizes the education of values, since this is the principal tool that will allow them to defend themselves in the future and it is how they will contribute to society. This new generation is changing its community, renovating it and making it stronger; making it easier to return to with their university diplomas and give back so much received.