Palm Beach Gardens | In 1943, U.S. Catholic bishops created an international humanitarian organization to serve World War II survivors in Europe.
Since then, Catholic Relief Services has expanded and today reaches 130 million people in more than 100 countries. While the types and delivery methods of services have broadened dramatically, the mission of the now massive charity have not: CRS works to assist impoverished and disadvantaged people overseas, “working in the spirit of Catholic social teaching to promote the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the human person.” CRS helps all people and never discriminates based on faith, race or ethnicity.
To Elena Garcia, the mission of CRS — celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding — is at least as important today as it was in 1943. Garcia is the director of Parish Social Ministry/CRS, Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Palm Beach, and her connection to the organization that goes back to her childhood in communist Cuba at the height of the Cold War, is an ideal example of how CRS identifies needs and finds ways to meet them.
After Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, those who had supported the previous regime or simply opposed communism were severely persecuted, resulting in a mass exodus of people from the island nation. Speculation that the Castro government was going to send the children of the opposition families to work camps in the Soviet Union was causing panic among those families who could not afford to emigrate. Most people leaving Cuba sought asylum in the United States, and while it was politically supported and granted (in the U.S.), it resulted in huge numbers of refugees.
From 1960 to 1966, CRS partnered with the National Catholic Welfare Conference to resettle 500,000 Cuban refugees to Miami, 14,000 of whom were unaccompanied children who were sent here by their parents for a new life. This exodus from 1960 to 1962, the largest of children in the Western Hemisphere, was called Operation Pedro Pan.
One of these refugees in 1961 was 13-year-old Garcia. She arrived in the United States on a ferry and stayed with relatives in Miami through the summer. She then moved to Dallas, where she attended Ursuline Academy, an all-girls boarding school that was associated with her former school in Cuba. She was on a scholarship, but did not know that at the time.
Over the years, Garcia’s three brothers and later her parents arrived in Miami as well. She was able to visit them during the summers until she graduated from high school and was able to move back to Miami where she attended Barry University.
Garcia married, raised two children, worked as a teacher and now enjoys the many facets of her current role. She began her work with CRS because she was so impressed by what she saw in action. For example, each year CRS sponsors the Operation Rice Bowl where Lenten prayers, fasting and gifts are used to enrich and better the lives of the poor. Daily almsgiving helps families reflect on the realities of others around the world who have less.
When Garcia began working with CRS, she did not realize that she was one of the 14,000 children who were helped by the organization as a child. When working on a presentation, she came across files that led her to believe that she was in fact helped by CRS, the organization for which she now works. She had kept her Cuban passport but it wasn’t until 2009 that she finally tried to understand it as she was writing a memoir of leaving Cuba and arriving in the United States. After asking a colleague in CRS what the letters on the card meant, she found out that they stood for National Catholic Welfare Conference and the other letters were CRS.
“Discovering all this has been a deeply emotional experience for me,” Garcia said. “For me, in a very special way, CRS is indeed the story of us.”
CRS continues to work with refugees outside of the United States while Catholic Charities works with the refugees within the United States, and Garcia, a Pedro Pan youngster, works for both organizations that helped her when she was in need.