By Andrea Kirk Assaf
NEW YORK, JUNE 24, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Banking on American enthusiasm for service work around the world, Fidesco has opened a branch in the United States to draw in more American donors and volunteers to devote two years of their profesional expertise and Catholic witness to making a lasting improvement in the lives of the underprivileged.
The Catholic charity, founded in Europe in 1981 and now celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, officially launched their American chapter at a reception hosted by Archbishop Timothy Dolan at his residence in New York City on Thursday with an international group of attendees.
“You know what the word means,” Archbishop Dolan told the audience, “Fides means Faith. The people of Fidesco do wonderful things…but what is brilliant or radiant about them is not so much what they do, as important as that is, but who they are and how they do it.”
“They do it with immense faith,” the archbishop continued, “and with deep love. They do it in the name of Jesus. In this month of the Sacred Heart, they carry the mercy, the love, and the compassion of His Heart to others.”
A mission is born
Fidesco was originally born as an apostolate of the France-based Emmanuel Community as a response to a request from African bishops following the Synod on the Family in 1980. The West African bishops asked that lay volunteers come to assist development projects and offer a Christian testimony of hope through their service.
The first volunteers, a family with medical expertise, was sent to the country formerly known as Zaire in 1981, today called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, Fidesco annually sends over 200 volunteers to 35 countries to assist with projects spearheaded by local churches around the world, many in non-Christian communities.
Fidesco works with locally-created groups such as dispensaries, refugee camps, youth centers, orphanages, schools, and other projects that work to benefit underprivileged groups.
The charity’s mission is “to fight poverty and despair through the development of all human beings regardless of their religious, ethnic or cultural backgrounds.” It does this by sending skilled volunteers to partner with local organizations devoted to development projects, social, and/or humanitarian efforts by serving as doctors, teachers, social educators, adminstrators, agronomists, in technical and manual work, or in management.
“Volunteers going abroad with Fidesco are Catholics or committed to a life of Catholic spiritual discipline,” Fidesco USA Executive Director David Lejeune told Zenit. “Hence the word FIDES – CO: Faith for the service of Co-operation.”
Most of the volunteers are young and single but, a rarity in charity work, 31% of Fidesco volunteers are whole families who relocate to a foreign country for two years.
“In many under-served countries, the role model of the wives within a Western culture family has a great impact on the local community’s culture and recognition of women’s role and dignity in societies,” Lejeune explained.
From Paris to New York
As a Catholic charity, Fidesco has been represented at the Holy See’s Pontifical Council Cor Unum by Jean-Luc Moens, the President of Fidesco International and a member of the Emmanuel Community.
Beginning in France, Fidesco now has 11 representative offices around the world.
“Despite Fidesco’s success in gaining international support, the United States had yet to substantially participate in these initiatives,” David Lejuene told ZENIT.
“The enthusiasm for service that is embedded within and unique to our national culture, was calling upon Fidesco to launch in the U.S: in 2009, an American family, a member of the Emmanuel Community, asked to go on mission with Fidesco. We answered the call, launched Fidesco USA in October 2009, and sent our first U.S. volunteers to Romania, in Eastern Europe.”
Now that Fidesco has been legally established in the United States, Lejeune said, that greater base of support among American donors and volunteers will help Fidesco grow into “a more comprehensive organization that draws from more resources from our national culture of service and generosity, connecting both individuals and communities in the spirit of faith and cooperation.”
Roughly a quarter of the U.S. population is Catholic and 26.2% of the population volunteered in 2007, Lejeune pointed out, while more than 3.5 million people provided over 500 hours of service during 2007.
“There is both a strong Catholic base and a persistent desire to serve in America, two components that are fundamental to Fidesco’s success,” he said.
“Fidesco USA’s core mission is to recruit, train, and send teams of American professional volunteers to under-served areas of the world for one- and two-year missions,” Lejeune told ZENIT. “Fidesco USA is also contemplating the launch of development projects within the continental United States, as well as taking a leadership role in managing development projects in Latin America and Haiti.”
Fidesco USA plans to recruit through word of mouth, partnerships with Catholic universities and Catholic ministries in non-denominational universities, dioceses and parishes, and the Catholic Volunteer Service network.
Profile of a missionary
Fidesco volunteers are encouraged to care for others in a full spirit of abandonment to the Will of God, Lejeune told ZENIT.
“What does this mean?: We ask Fidesco volunteers to say “Yes,” before we tell them what they will do and where they will go; before they receive their mission assignment,” Lejeune continued.
“Additionally, Fidesco volunteers can only go on mission outside their home-country, they are sent in teams, and we are one of the few organizations working with married couples, and families up to 5 children.”
Each volunteer costs Fidesco $24,000 to support his or her mission, all expenses included. Four American volunteers are being sent on a two-year mission this September, the new Executive Director of Fidesco USA told the gathering in New York, which will change not only the lives of the service recipients, but also permanently affect the lives of those on mission.
One of those missionaries is 28-year-old lawyer Natalie Kean, who was inspired to join Fidesco through the witness of volunteers in Gainsville, Georgia.
“I saw all the amazing work that they were doing in my own community,” Kean told ZENIT, “and about a year ago, while I was listening to the testimony of Fidesco volunteers at an Emmanuel Community gathering, I began to think ‘I know I can do that.'”
What struck Kean about the French volunteers she met was that they had sacrificed their careers and lives for two years to come help her own community by teaching, running a food bank, and connecting at-risk people with social services.
At the same time, Kean had joined a study group of Catholic Social Teaching and found her desire for service work growing. “I can do that,” soon became “I want to do that” and so Kean applied to be a volunteer with Fidesco.
Kean will be living near a slum in Manilla in the Philippines for two years, working with the Life Project for Youth, an NGO that helps young women develop profesional skills at the Don Bosco Youth Center in a local parish.
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