May 9, 2011
School children cheer when they hear they now have clean water and school supplies because of the Edmonton students.

PHOTO SUPPLIED

School children cheer when they hear they now have clean water and school supplies because of the Edmonton students.

CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

EDMONTON — Carla Cuglietta is all about helping others, whether the family is across the street or across the world.

A teacher and chaplain at Austin O’Brien High School, Cuglietta was inspired at least 10 years ago by a TV documentary about a woman who felt called to help abandoned children. The children were living in a garbage dump.

“She sold her home, and bought the land right next to the garbage dump in Mexico, and adopted all of those children. When I saw the documentary, I thought I must meet this woman, so I bought a ticket and flew down,” said Cuglietta.

The woman had adopted 88 children. When Cuglietta arrived, the woman was away on vacation, but Cuglietta still stayed the summer there volunteering at the orphanage and helping with the crops. Ever since, she has undertaken a summer project, helping disadvantaged people around the world.

SIDEWALKS AND FAIR TRADE

After Mexico, she went to Costa Rica and built sidewalks near an orphanage for children with disabilities. In El Salvador she met farmers with sugar plantations and learned more about fair trade and workers in unfortunate financial situations.

“I think India and Africa are where I’m really going to focus the rest of my time and resources because the needs there are so great,” she said.

Her students are regular volunteers at Hope Mission and the Marian Centre. With her encouragement, they work in soup kitchens and organize local food drives. Some of the students are active local volunteers, while others are helping with charitable efforts globally.

“My job is to help people serve, whether it’s 15 blocks away or across the world,” she said.

Every year she organizes Stand Up For day, an event where all of the Edmonton Catholic high schools are invited to stand together, united for people who need their help somewhere else in the world. This year’s event, held March 15, had 320 students from six high schools participating, raising $8,973. With one more school doing six weeks of extra fundraising and yet to hand in its contributions, Cuglietta is confident the final number will exceed $10,000. The money will go to purchase water filters to provide clean water for families in India.

Since 2001, when she started teaching, she has devoted her summers to going to developing nations, doling out the money her students have raised.

The photos, videos and stories she brings back from these places are strung together and shared with her students so they can witness the impact they are having.

“I think it’s growing because the students feel that their contributions, their prayers and their awareness make a difference. When they come back the following year, they get to see the pictures and a report of what their finances did the year before,” said Cuglietta.

MAKES IT REAL

“That’s why it’s been really successful because it’s really a personal experience for a lot of people. They see the actual donation that they handed me getting handed to someone who needs it, and that resonates with the kids,” she said.

Principal Debbie Rowley calls Cuglietta a “leader of leaders,” a teacher who gives confidence to students in finding their calling and in achieving their personal goals.

High school students are questioning their faith and determining where they fit into society, and Cuglietta helps them sort out these questions, Rowley said. She shows them the importance of reaching out to help other people.

“She’s done some amazing work with our students by supporting their faith development in the school,” said the principal. “She’s been a real inspiration in terms of her faith through the opportunities that she’s brought to them, some of the social action work she’s organized.”

Carla Cuglietta visits an Indian home using donated water filters.

PHOTO SUPPLIED

Carla Cuglietta visits an Indian home using donated water filters.

Through her encouragement, many of her students have got involved in drama, formed bands, joined church choirs and even recorded music CDs.

“She really speaks to them in terms of the human condition, telling students that we’re not expecting them to be perfect and that’s not what their faith is about.”

Cuglietta will go to Sierra Leone, Africa, from July 1-28. The country is still picking up the pieces from a civil war that ended in 2002, resulting in the deaths of about 50,000 people. Some of the children and teens raised in the war years are now the teachers in Sierra Leone. Living with violence for so long, those teachers use violence in their classrooms to maintain order.

Cuglietta and another teacher from Toronto will help those teachers in Sierra Leone manage a classroom peacefully, without resorting to aggressive measures.

“It was a pilot program last summer, and they’ve asked us to return again. This year we will be meeting with the teachers that were trained by the teachers we trained,” she said.

Upon returning from Sierra Leone, Cuglietta is going to Shanghai, China, where she will work with an international baccalaureate program. She taught phys-ed in China in 2006 and 2007.

“Every international baccalaureate program has a community in service component, and they are wanting to make some changes, and get their kids doing more volunteering globally and locally,” she said.

Here in Edmonton, she encourages students to help and serve because they have been helped and served. It’s a Christ-based approach. Much of the motivation behind what she does is because of her faith, so the interesting challenge for her will be working at a non-Christian school.

Cuglietta goes to India every second year because that’s where the majority of the funds raised by the schools go. After China, she will head to India again this summer.

TWO-YEAR CHECK UP

“Every two years I go to ensure that the water filters that are supposed to be purchased by the Edmonton students are actually in the homes. We also meet with the villages that are making an appeal for those water filters,” she said.

Micro-loans are available to those with water filters. The villagers explain their plans, such as starting their own small businesses, in order to receive micro-financing.

She is the epitome of a chaplain dedicated to the faith, thoroughly committed to making the faith come alive for students.

“The best way that I can show Jesus’ love is to serve because that is what he asks us to do. I really love St. Francis’ quote, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.’ It really resonates with me, and I’ve noticed the positive reaction from people when they see the difference their funds can make,” she said.

She knows that students want to help, but sometimes don’t know where to start and feel overwhelmed.

“My motivation is being able to work with people on both sides, seeing the people on this side who are so pleased to give and the people on the other side so pleased to receive,” said Cuglietta. “Being the middle person is a wonderful opportunity for me.”