ARECIBO, Puerto Rico (CNS) — The president of Catholic Extension praised the director of a ministry for young neglected and abused children in Arecibo for making “the light of Christ” visible among “the least of these.”

During an Oct. 19 Mass in Arecibo, Father Jack Wall, who is president of Catholic Extension, presented the organization’s Lumen Christi Award to Melva Arbelo, director of Santa Teresita of the Child Jesus Children’s Home. The award honors Arbelo for “her faith-filled example of protecting and extending God’s love to the most vulnerable.”

Founded 17 years ago by the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation and members of Santa Teresita Parish, Santa Teresita Home provides a protective shelter and a broad range of integrated services to abused children ages 3 to 7.

Arbelo, her staff and volunteers create a loving home for up to 24 children removed from their own families because they were severely neglected, physically beaten or emotionally or sexually abused. Through their ministry, they help the children heal from what are often overwhelming traumatic experiences and to recover and restore their self-worth and dignity.

“We have come today to proclaim to all of you that we have seen a great light, the light of Christ, rise in the East, actually the Southeast, in this beautiful island of Puerto Rico,” said Father Wall in presenting the award at the end of Mass at nearby Santa Teresita Church.

“We certainly see today that light of Christ rise in the heart of Melva Arbelo,” he added.

Addressing Arbelo directly, he said: “The beautiful thing about the light that is within you is that you see that light in the eyes and in the hearts of each one of these children. We have come to give thanks to God for this great work of love that you do every day.”

Father Wall told her Catholic Extension was pleased to help hold up “this light of Christ in your life” so that it can “be seen by others in our country and in our world.”

In receiving the award, Arbelo said she was making “a commitment together with you to continue with this mission that God has put in my hands and in my heart. God bless you, and please God bless me.”

Later, she said she saw the award as a sign “that God is blessing us, blessing Santa Teresita Home and blessing the children who are victims of abuse.”

Bishop Daniel Fernandez Torres of Arecibo had nominated Arbelo for the award. During the Mass, he thanked Catholic Extension for the recognition and pledged the diocese’s continued commitment to serve those in need and be a testament of God’s immense love for his children.”

“We salute Melva with great joy and give thanks to God, who is instrumental in her work, as we see his light in Santa Teresita Children’s Home,” the bishop added. “Pope Francis reminds us that we are surrounded by the needs and suffering of others and that through the corporal works of mercy, we can bring God’s great love to these situations.

“We encounter the person of Christ in these children at Santa Teresita Home,” he continued, adding that working with those in need “always involves sacrifice,” but the award “reminds us that we are all part of the same journey. All of our power and strength to help others comes from God.”

Catholic Extension staff brought gift boxes for all of the home’s children.

Handing out the gifts, Joe Boland, the organization’s vice president of mission, told them, “Each one of you is a gift from God to us and to the whole world. You are a gift because you have the light of Christ in your hearts. We see this light in your faces and in your smiles. This light is illuminating the church. We want to thank you for sharing this light with us.”

In addition to the award itself — a crystal cross symbolizing the light shining outward from Christ — Father Wall presented Arbelo with a $25,000 check to support her ministry.

That support comes at a critical time for the home because the current severe debt and financial crisis in Puerto Rico has led to government budget cuts directly affecting the home and other church-run social services on the island.

Father Wall also gave an additional $25,000 check to the Diocese of Arecibo. Bishop Fernandez Torres said it would be used to support seven other social ministries also affected by government budget cuts, including homes for the elderly; other ministries to abused children; a home for pregnant teens; after-school services to high-risk youth; and several social ministry programs of the diocese’s Office for Human Development.

Catholic Extension, based in Chicago, is a national fundraising organization that helps build churches and supports church ministries and other efforts in U.S. home missions.

It has contributed more than $260,000 to Santa Teresita Home in Arecibo, which it helped build in 1999. Since first assisting the Archdiocese of San Juan with a church-building project in 1908, it has provided a total of $100 million in today’s dollars to the island’s six dioceses.

In September, Catholic Extension announced that it would increase its funding to help the Catholic Church in Puerto in 2017 during the island’s debt crisis.