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Blessed and Thankful: A Family’s Journey through Hardship and Healing
December 19th, 2019

The Martinez Family

Norwalk – At this time of joy and gratitude, one local family is giving thanks for gifts many take for granted: a supportive community, the generosity of strangers, and most importantly, the health of their child after coming close to losing her to a rare and complicated disorder.

When 16-year-old Sarah Martinez started feeling ill last May, her doctor prescribed antibiotics to relieve her sinus pressure. But the pain continued – and panic attacks, vertigo, and focal seizures ensued. Sarah’s parents knew this was more than just a routine infection, but medical tests revealed nothing, leading one doctor to even ask the otherwise healthy teenager, “Why are you pretending?”

She wasn’t. Once she was referred to Yale New Haven Hospital and underwent additional exams, a diagnosis finally confirmed a very real condition. Sarah had developed Opsoclonus-Myoclonus Syndrome with Benign Ovarian Teratoma, an illness known to afflict only 22 other people worldwide.

Despite the removal of a fist-sized tumor and her entire right ovary, Sarah’s ordeal continued though she doesn’t remember much of it. “It was like a dream,” she said, having endured rounds of chemotherapy and other treatments. “When I woke up though, I realized so much had happened.”

Anxiety, tremors, and the inability to walk or even swallow kept her hospitalized at Yale and later at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in New York. Through it all, however, Sarah was never alone, as her large family worked out scheduled visitations, especially from her father Gonzalo who never left her side. Along with the inspiration they drew from each other and their community, it was their unwavering faith that sustained them.

“There was a time when we seriously feared her death,” said Sarah’s mother Karla, “but I had already talked to God, and I accepted what he had given to me. We were blessed with His graces, and it brought our family closer.”

That family, including Sarah’s 10 siblings, leaned on their strong religious upbringing and the support of Catholic Charities and the Room to Grow (RTG) preschool in Norwalk during the months of Sarah’s hospitalization and ongoing recovery. A proud and humble couple, the Martinezes said they never “stressed over material things,” but with Gonzalo on leave from his job and Karla juggling the needs of her younger children, the family relied on the generosity and prayers of others, especially those connected with RTG.

“We are so blessed. Room to Grow takes care of everybody,” said Gonzalo, with his family surrounding him in a large room at the preschool where eight of his 11 children have attended over the years.

As Sarah, now in remission after being discharged in August, recounted her story of struggle and rehabilitation, her younger siblings played cards, constructed Lego towers, munched on Goldfish crackers, and rested in the arms of their teacher, showing the loving atmosphere of RTG which has become a second home to this family.

According to Sarah’s mother, program director Nancy Owens and program coordinator Regina Terenzio are “special sisters and therapists” to the family, collecting meals, diapers and toys for them while Sarah was in the hospital, though Karla is grateful for so much more.

“With Room to Grow, it’s not just the material goods but the friendship,” she recalled. “They always have time to listen. I don’t know how we would have gotten through this without them.”

Owens, who has known the Martinez family for over 20 years, remembers Sarah as a typical teen prior to her illness: funny and enthusiastic with a good sense of humor. “And a fighter!” Owens emphasized. “Her faith in God has guided her through this challenging journey and continues to give her strength.”

While RTG and Catholic Charities supported the Martinezes with food, clothing and tuition assistance, Owens added, they also helped make connections within the Norwalk community to assist the family during Sarah’s hospital stay. And at home, Sarah’s sisters and brothers took over. Twenty-two year old Angelica left college in Arizona to become a second mom to the little ones as Karla cared for Sarah. Despite their own illnesses and injuries, Bella, 15, and Miguel, 11, have assumed some of the responsibilities that Sarah previously handled, along with Alex, 13, who commented on the difficulties they have all faced.

“It was hard to keep it together sometimes,” said Alex, pausing from the game of Uno he was playing with Miguel, “but I knew I had to set an example. I want to show a good pathway for my siblings.”

It is another pathway, paved with the generosity and compassion of so many, that has helped Sarah and the entire Martinez family over the last six months, but their needs are still so great. Amy Zajac of Catholic Charities said this is a family of remarkable faith but limited means. “They are in dire straits but continue to be so optimistic,” she added.

A GoFundMe page was established with Karla posting frequent updates on Sarah’s condition. Progress is being made toward their goal of $25,000, though the Martinezes are still not financially stable, needing a car and continued assistance with medical bills.

“Every donation, every meal, every gift we are grateful for. Thank you for showering us with a boundless amount of love. We ask for your continued help,” Karla wrote, referencing a “wish list” of necessities such as gift cards and car seats, along with Christmas ideas for the children.

In recognition of all the Martinez family has received, Sarah, now back to school part-time at Cardinal Kung Academy in Stamford, has established a group devoted to corporal works of mercy. “I was always praying and trusting in God,” said Sarah. “So many people gave to my family. Now I want to give back.”

Despite the financial needs and the emotional toll of Sarah’s illness, the Martinezes have persevered thanks to their community of faith and their appreciation of the “small things that really count,” said Gonzalo, opening his arms to seemingly encompass his family and their beloved preschool. “We are so blessed. We get through because God unites us all. We are grateful and we are happy.”

 Anyone wishing to assist the Martinez family is asked to contact Nancy Owens, program director for Room to Grow, at [email protected].

Written by Emily Clark as seen in Fairfield County Catholic.

 



Catholic Charities “makes God’s love real” in Norwalk area
December 19th, 2019

NORWALK—“It’s time to dream even bigger about how Catholic Charities can make God’s love real for those who are  suffering,” said Bishop Frank J. Caggiano said at the recent Catholic Charities of Norwalk Celebrity Breakfast held at Shorehaven Country Club.

The annual breakfast raised $.   ,000 to support to support the Room to Grow Preschool and the counseling and Behavioral Health Services provided in Norwalk.

More than 400 packed the Shorehaven banquet room to hear the bishop speak, meet new Catholic Charities executive director Mike Donoghue, and bid farewell to Al Barber, who has led that agency for the past 15 years.

Barber received a standing ovation from the gathering after the bishop thanked him for his leadership. “This was not work for you, it was your heart,” the bishop said, “and I’m personally very grateful for your leadership.”

While the mood was festive, the talks by the Bishop and Mike Donoghue pointed out the challenges faced by the poor, vulnerable and struggling served by Catholic Charities in a county of extreme wealth and often invisible poverty and personal anguish. 

The bishop said that Catholic Charities has done great work in Norwalk through the generosity of all those who support its work and “believe that faith can make a difference.”

He said that in a divided time, “it is more important than ever to build communities where people can live in peace, children can grow up safely, and people who are hurting can be made whole again.”

Much of his talk focused on the challenges faced by young people who need to be protected from an often predatory social media environment that can lower their self-esteem and make them feel unloved.

“The issue that is burning in my heart is the challenge young people face,” he said, noting that many young people feel bullied, isolated and unable to live up to online images of acceptance.

“In a world governed by ‘likes,’ it is easy for young people to believe they are never good enough. That’s a lie. God loves us all in his image and calls us to a great life,” said the bishop.

Mike Donoghue thanked the board and bishop for the trust they placed in him, and said that after visiting Catholic Charities sites throughout Fairfield County, he was amazed “by the depth and breadth of services.”

He said that for 102 years in Fairfield County, Catholic Charities has been “feeding the hungry, assisting the poor and emotionally challenged, providing help and creating hope by serving all those in need.”

Donoghue said that “far too many people are hungry” in Fairfield County and that income inequality puts stress on housing, food and the cost of basics for many families who turn to Catholic Charities for help.

He said that New Covenant House of Hospitality serves 600,000 meals a year to the poor of Stamford, and that Merton Center in Bridgeport provides more than 800,000. Morning Glory, housed in the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality, serves over 365 breakfasts each morning in downtown Danbury. 

In addition to direct relief through its feeding and food pantry programs, he said that Catholic Charities helps clients “to focus on developing skills to move from crisis to stability and growth.”

Nancy Owens, Director of Room to Grow Preschool, and Richard Madwid, Director of Mental Health Services.

Many in the hall were moved to tears after watching the powerful new video on Catholic Charities “Room to Grow” Preschool that serves 132 low-income children in Norwalk. The video tells the story of a single mother who suffered many loses and was at risk of losing her children until she found Room to Grow and the child care provided by Catholic Charities.

“I got refuge and hope at Room to Grow,” she said. “God showed himself to me and provided a path for me here,” she said, noting that she has found a job, housing and taken control of her life.

(To learn more about the services provided by Catholic Charities, including Room to Grow Preschool and Behavioral Health Services, visit their webpage at www.ccfairfield.org.)

As seen in Fairfield County Catholic.



Tamara’s Handbag Mission
December 19th, 2019

DANBURY— “When you are a homeless individual it’s very difficult to establish yourself and anticipate your daily needs during this life-changing event you are facing,” says Tamara Espinal, program coordinator of Morning Glory” Breakfast Program in Danbury.

That’s why she came up with the idea to try and make the daily lives of women easier by providing them with the simple necessities for self-care that most women take for granted.

Through Tamara’s Handbag Mission, Catholic Charities hopes to make homeless women’s lives a bit smoother when they are moving between temporary shelters by providing them with all the essentials (i.e. hair brush, toothpaste and toothbrush, deodorant, hand and body lotion, under garments) in a handbag that can easily be carried with them. This can make their day less stressful and build self-esteem to create a positive outcome for the future.  

The agency is looking to the community and volunteers for help with this project. “Many women have old handbags in their closets that are not being used and are simply collecting dust. Any handbag or any shape or size will do,” states Espinal. “These can simply be filled with items on our wish list that will benefit someone in need and donated.”

On Spring Street at the Dorothy Day Hospitality House, Catholic Charities operates its Morning Glory Breakfast Program which serves hot and healthy meals to the hungry and homeless of the Danbury area. The agency made sure that the program is conveniently located to the homeless shelters so that the neediest in the area would be served a hot breakfast and provided with a safe and warm environment daily.

Morning Glory works in collaboration with other Danbury area agencies to provide education and referrals that assist with ending homelessness. Currently a multitude of agencies and programs use Morning Glory as a location to outreach to the hardest to access populations and to provide services with the hope of ending their homelessness. Morning Glory has served over 100,000 meals since opening in October of 2007. There is no cost associated with meals or engagement with agencies; guests are only asked to sign in when they arrive. All participation in services with visiting agencies and programs is voluntary.

While Morning Glory works hard to meet the needs of its clients, it appears that the work is never ending.

“As I’m in the kitchen serving clients on a daily basis, I see new people each day who are in need of attention as they are facing increasing challenges,” states Espinal.

Morning Glory also offers a mobile non-food pantry that provides items such as cleaning products, paper goods and hygiene products. The service is provided to participants of Catholic Charities’ other programs in Danbury as well. 

Catholic Charities serves over 700 residents of the greater Danbury area each month through its behavioral health clinic, Morning Glory Breakfast Program, Homeless Outreach Team, New Heights, Community Support Program and Family Loan Program.

 (For more information, contact Tamara Espinal at 203.349.2428 or [email protected].)

(For more information on the Morning Glory Breakfast Program visit the website at



Mike Donoghue named Executive Director, Catholic Charities of Fairfield County
December 12th, 2019

BRIDGEPORT—Mike Donoghue of Darien has been named executive director of Catholic Charities of Fairfield County. The appointment, announced by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, was effective December 2.  

Donoghue succeeds Al Barber who has held the post since 2004 and has recently accepted the newly created post as director of Foundations in Charity, one of the foundations created last year through the “We Stand With Christ” capital campaign.

Prior to his move to the non-profit world at Catholic Charities, Mike spent 32 years working in New York City for Wall Street finance and investment firms.

Mike Donoghue and Bishop Frank Caggiano

“Mike Donoghue brings the passion, zeal, intellect, experience and love of faith to take Catholic Charities to the next level in its mission of creating a more loving community that serves the most vulnerable and respects the dignity of all people,” said Bishop Caggiano.

“While Mike has had considerable business success, he prepared for this new assignment through years of outstanding volunteer service to the diocese, his parish and the community. He brings great understanding and compassion to those left out of the benefits of our economy and also a commitment to empower them through Catholic Charities programs to move forward in their own lives.”

The bishop said he believes Donoghue will build on the success of Al Barber who left an outstanding business career to take the helm of Catholic Charities for the past 15 years.

“At this time of transition I’m very personally grateful to Al Barber under whose faithful leadership the agency expanded its nutrition, child development and family support services,” the bishop said. “Al rolled up his sleeves to engage with those served by the agency and to build community support, and we are grateful for his service.”

Catholic Charities is one of the largest private social service providers in Fairfield County. Its programs include nutrition, housing mental health, adoption and pregnancy service, immigration and family support service that help more than 10,000 people of all faiths each year.

Mike Donoghue: After earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from Dartmouth College in 1982 and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1986, he began his Wall Street career at Morgan Stanley & Co where he worked for 19 years and was named managing director in 1996.

Mike was a founding member of Morgan Stanley’s High Yield Sales and Trading business which he helped grow from inception with eight employees to a $1 Billion business with over 200 employees globally. 

He joined startup investment management firm Phoenix Investment Adviser in April 2006 as president of the firm. During his tenure, the firm’s assets under management grew from $35 million with four employees to over $1.5 billion with 24 employees.

Among his many Church and volunteer commitments, Mike Donoghue was invested as a Knight of Malta in 2004 and currently leads the Fairfield County chapter as Area chair with his wife Cece. He has participated in eight Order of Malta pilgrimages to Lourdes, France where the order brings sick people and their caregivers in search of spiritual, emotional and physical healing. Mike was elected to the Order of Malta board of councillors in 2018 and recently completed a five year strategic plan for the American Association. He was also a founding member and the founding co-president of the recently formed (2017) Legatus chapter in Fairfield County.

He has worked as an active volunteer at New Covenant Center, Malta House, Thomas Merton Center, St. Catherine’s Center for Special Needs and the Shepherd’s mentoring program.  

Mike and his wife Cece are perhaps best known by Catholics throughout the diocese for their work as the campaign co-chairs for the Annual Catholic Appeal in 2013-2014 during Bishop Caggiano’s first year in the diocese. They are also active supporters and donors to the Ignatian Spirituality Center at Fairfield University, Foundations in Education and the new Veritas Catholic Radio network. 

His passion for working with individuals with Special Needs and volunteering led him to serve as head coach and commissioner of the Darien Challenger Baseball League, a position he has held since 2010.  He also served as a board member of St. Catherine Academy in Fairfield from 2004–2009 and has been as member of the board of directors of the Ataxia Telangiectasia (A-T) Children’s Project since 1996. A-T is a rare genetic fatal disease that attacks children. 

Mike and his wife Cece and have five children ages 19 to 28 and are members of St Thomas More Parish in Darien.

Catholic Charities sponsors more than 30 programs and services in offices throughout Fairfield County. The main office is located at 238 Jewett, Avenue, Bridgeport 06606 in the Catholic Center.

(For more information call: 203.416.1370 or visit: www.ccfairfield.org.)



New Covenant Center Distributes 500 Turkeys for Thanksgiving
November 21st, 2019

On Wednesday, November 20, 2019, New Covenant Center distributed 500 turkeys from their Richmond Hill Avenue location in Stamford. The program was fortunate to have News 12 Connecticut with them throughout the day to capture the entire process and to see how it impacts those in need. 

Click here for the full story and video.



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