Border Immersion: a visit to a special school – Deacon candidates encounter a school of love in Anapra, Mexico

Barb Arland-Fye
Benito takes delight in something his mom, Stephanie, said to him during a visit of a group from the Diocese of Davenport to Proyecto Santo Niño in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico on Nov. 5. Five deacon candidates, their formation director and Bishop Thomas Zinkula visited the school during a border immersion experience.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series on a border immersion experience.)
ANAPRA, Mexico — The bumpy ride on dusty dirt roads on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez led deacon candidates from the Diocese of Davenport to an oasis, a cheerful school of love for children with special needs.

It was day three of their journey with the Encuentro Project, which offers participants a faith-based, multifaceted immersion program in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border region to experience a deeper understanding of the complex migration reality and of this community. “Encuentro” is a Spanish word that means encounter.

Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Carol Wirtz and Andrea Koverman welcomed the five deacon candidates, their formation director and Bishop Thomas Zinkula to Proyecto Santo Niño for an encounter with young students and their moms Nov. 5. Five or six children were playing or bonding with their moms as the visitors sat down in the colorful community room to listen to the sisters share the story of Santo Niño. Later the group ate a lunch of burritos and cupcakes with the teachers, students and moms.

Santo Niño de Atocha, who represents the Child Jesus, is especially beloved in Mexico, according to a history of Proyecto Santo Niño, which has served children with special needs since 2003. Santo Niño “is believed to travel throughout the countryside at night performing miracles.” The sisters shared how the dedication of their small staff and volunteers toward the children and their families carries on Jesus’ miracles.


The miracles
One example is 9-year-old Ismael, who sat in a wheelchair during the Davenport group’s visit, looking through a children’s book as his mom, Judith, turned the pages. A single parent, she brought Ismael to the school when he was a year old, unable to sit up or hold his head up. His legs were immobile. Now he can move a lot more, Sister Carol said, and he communicates through sign language. Judith feels grateful for the sisters’ role in her son’s progress.

Three-year-old Benito scooted joyfully through the community room with his walker. When he arrived at the school months ago, he could not sit in a chair, his feet turned inward and he hopped around on his knees. Now he can walk and even runs a bit, the sisters said. “He’s very intelligent,” said Sister Carol, a therapist who calls her work “lessons not therapy. I’m having conversations with the brain.” As she followed him around the room, Benito’s mom, Stephanie, whispered something into his ear and a smile filled his face.

Tanya, the mother of 12-year-old Reyna, is paying her gratitude forward for the nurturing the sisters have provided since Reyna was just a year old. Tanya was an orphan when she gave birth at age 15 to Reyna. Today she is married to a builder and their family is thriving. “She’s very thankful,” Sister Carol said, interpreting for the Spanish-speaking mom. Whenever Tanya sees other special needs parents, she tells them about Santo Niño and invites them to come to the school. Tanya’s husband helped with repair of the school after a fire earlier this year and provided work for other families. Altogether, the school has about 30 students.

“It’s so good for people to come to see for themselves, to hear the stories,” Sister Carol told the Davenport group. “You see how incredible the obstacles are,” said Sister Andrea, a special education teacher. “The miracle for me is the change in the life of the mothers.” In a community like Anapra, with its “lethal poverty,” mothers of children with disabilities don’t have the resources to help their children and feel deep shame for their situation, Sister Andrea said. With their participation in Santo Niño, “now the women see their children as a blessing.”

Santo Niño’s dreams

Barb Arland-Fye
Sister Janet Gildea, center, is pictured on a memorial display at Santo Niño.

The sisters speak glowingly of Sister Janet Gildea, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati and medical doctor, whose photo appears inside a large heart bordered with colorful paper flowers on a memorial display in the community room. Sister Janet’s ministry to families living in desperate poverty on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border expanded to provide primary health care to children with special needs through Proyecto Santo Niño. Her colleagues believe Sister Janet, who died in 2019, is on her way to sainthood. Her favorite saying was “Do what presents itself,” Sister Carol said. “So that’s what we do.” Santo Niño’s philosophy focuses on progress and not what is wrong.

“We make sure all children here are educated with dignity,” Sister Andrea said. “We raise their level of dignity.” The sisters are working toward certification of Proyecto Santo Niño as a Montessori. They have visions of establishing a bi-national lab school that nurtures future teachers from the community and educates students to become leaders.

Even setbacks transform into miracles, from the sisters’ faith-filled perspective. Earlier this year, after completion of a renovation project, a small fire struck Santo Niño and put it out of commission for a few months. “Our wonderful team of mothers was there the very next day to start the cleanup process,” the sisters wrote in their newsletter “Desert Blooms” (September 2021).

The sisters learned that faulty wiring caused the fire, so they took action to set things straight. “All of the reconstruction work provided some much-needed income for families struggling to stay afloat in the midst of the pandemic.”

The sisters are working to obtain nonprofit status for Proyecto Santo Niño, which relies on donations. Besides the funds needed to educate the children, “We try to provide a small stipend for moms who can’t work outside the home,” Sister Andrea said. They perform various tasks at the school.

Lasting impact
A month after the border immersion trip, during a diocesan Lunch and Learn video discussion, several deacon candidates spoke about how the visit to Santo Niño touched them. “My wife taught early childhood special education for 33 years,” said Gary Johnson of Divine Mercy Parish-Burlington/West Burling­ton. “I saw the love that my wife gave to her kids and it reflected back from the kids. I saw the same thing at the school (Santo Niño) in those kids. It shows the importance of meeting people and being with people.”

“I saw in those little kids that they needed medical help. I had a daughter who had open heart surgery a couple of years ago,” Ryan Burchett of St. Paul the Apostle Parish-Davenport, said. He had all the resources necessary to meet her needs. That is not the case for the families of the children he encountered at Santo Niño. “To see in the faces of these children the face of my own daughter helped me realize how fortunate I am. That was a paradigm shift for me.”

“We were able to share a meal with them. Here was a group barely scraping by and they put together a meal for us,” Andy Hardigan of Prince of Peace Parish-Clinton, said. “Something we could afford, but they, out of the kindness of their heart, provided a meal for us. That sharing of that meal with our fellow brothers and sisters regardless of where we originate, where we come from … This was an extension of my family. The pure graciousness shown by that group really stood out for me.”

(Learn more about Proyecto Santo Niño at Send an email to

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