By Carol Bowman, 14-time traveler from Laredo, TX
She sat at the top of the stairs, her big ebony eyes peering through the banister slats at the commotion below. Mia stuck her tongue out in pure playful innocence, made a funny impish face, then squealed with laughter and put on her small red and white speckled sunglasses, as if to hide her glee. The tiny four-year-old, in her white and orange striped dress and her black, shiny bobbed hair seemed to be looking for action. Her absolute delight revealed a child relishing in the joy, safety, and love she felt in this country farmhouse in Biancavilla, Catania, Sicily.
Her older brother, about six years of age, stood one step above, wearing a round Styrofoam ring on his head like a crown, teasing and taunting Mia with his own bag of mischievous tricks. “These two must be a handful,” I thought, wondering how anyone keeps up with their inquisitive energy.
The siblings’ excitement centered on the group of 13 Overseas Adventure Travelers, myself included, who shuffled inside the front door of Casa di Maria. I was eager for our scheduled visit to this Grand Circle Foundation supported site. The parent company of the small group travel division, O.A.T., Grand Circle selects schools or organizations throughout the world that desperately need sponsorship. At present, 109 projects in 59 countries receive assistance. The mantra of the foundation is this: “We are giving back to the world we travel because travel has the power to change the world, one school, one village or one person at a time.”
Every tour operated by O.A.T. visits the support project located within that local region, and donation amounts according to the foundation’s needs are offered by Grand Circle Corporation from travelers’ tour fees. The foundation, supporting Casa di Maria since the spring of 2018 has already donated funds to purchase a wheat grinder and a rotary plow. Lunch at this foster family home for refugees or displaced children, teens and adults, has been included in the regular itinerary of O.A.T.’s Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions for a year and a half. Although the foster kids, numbering 10 at the time, knew the drill, this visit seemed especially important. Children emerged from every corner, bounced with enthusiasm and approached us with wide-eyed curiosity. Our group’s mid-summer stopover in the 100°F Sicilian heat would be the last one until September when tours resume under cooler conditions.
Resident teenagers handled their assigned tasks upon our arrival and carried trays of ice tea and snacks from the kitchen. Our hosts, foster parents of this ‘heaven-sent project,’ Sergio Penisi and Carmela Comes greeted us with open arms. Carmela managed to hug a few of her guests despite holding a little child who needed a cuddle during this noisy intrusion.
We sat in a circle of pre-arranged chairs to listen to Sergio explain how Casa di Maria began. “For many years, Carmela and I lived in the busy, metropolitan area of Catania with our four children. But in 2009, after many discussions as to how to make our lives more meaningful, the concept of the Casa di Maria was born. We decided that the way to give service to the weakest comes from the roots of the strongest—which in our case was our faith. So we moved here in the countryside near Mt. Etna into this old Sicilian farmhouse and took on the tremendous responsibility of providing a temporary foster care home for children or adults who needed a refuge from terrible troubles.” A heavy sigh left Sergio’s chest and I sensed the struggles the couple must endure to provide a loving, caring environment, plus the basic personal needs like food, clothing, and health care to 10 or 15 distressed individuals at a time.
Sergio explained that most referrals for temporary foster placement come from the Court of Minors in Catania. He and Carmela provide a safe haven for unaccompanied underage foreigners, mothers, and children who have been victims of domestic violence, families experiencing economic hardship, political refugees, and children with mental or physical disabilities.
Carmela emphasized the focus of their program, as she stroked Mia’s hair to calm the wiry child. “We try to make everyone feel loved. Each day we face challenges linked to the tragic circumstances of those we serve. Mia and her brother are Romanian refugees and we hope to fill their void until their mother can resume her parental role.” Carmela looked up to a young 15-year-old, who waited atop the open staircase. “That’s Hope and she has been practicing to tell you her story. She’s so nervous, but so courageous,” Carmela said with a comforting smile directed toward the girl whose name summed up the atmosphere of this home.
Hope edged down the stairs and began her tale of horror in halted English, her words uttered in a soft trembling voice. With poise and grace, she related the story of her terrifying experience, but she seemed detached from the images, as reliving them might be too painful. She told of her life in Nigeria, of being oppressed and abused. She told of making the frightening crossing from Tunisia’s coast across the Mediterranean to the edges of Sicily in a rubber boat. She told of the flimsy vessel capsizing in rough seas, of some of her friends drowning, of the wonderment and joy of finally stepping onto free land alive. She told of being immediately forced into sex trade activities against her will by the cruel men who organized the voyage. She told of the nightmare of mistreatment and abuse yet again.
But then she told of a god-sent opportunity, one moment when she was able to call the police and reveal her capture. Officials rescued her and other girls and now, she said, “I am in a place of safety and a home of love and I am so grateful for Casa di Maria.” She looked at Sergio and Carmela with sad eyes that had seen too much for a 15-year-old, but a tinge of hope, like her name, seemed to radiate through the memories of terror.
I asked Sergio how they financially support the incredible needs of their large Sicilian family. He proudly announced the success of the catering business they started which not only provides income for the project but also acts as a training tool for the older girls. They learn how to cook for large groups and develop the skills needed to serve food at social functions or events. We received the benefit of their instruction at lunch, as our group feasted on Serrano ham and cheese appetizers, homemade pasta and bread, homegrown olives, turkey, dessert and topped off with delicious red wine made from grapes of the vineyard on the property.
Over the past nine years, more than 700 volunteers, friends, and relatives, ranging in age from 14-70 have descended upon Casa di Maria’s farmhouse in small troupes for two-week retreats. It’s like Habitat for Humanity, however, these youth and church groups are not building houses of bricks and mortar. They are building character, trust, and patience in the disadvantaged residents who need attention, guidance, fun, and distractions from their difficult situations. Carmela called these unselfish helpers, ‘the small army of God.’
After lunch, the kids’ excitement swelled. They knew what was coming: crayons and coloring books, candy, games, and paper dolls. They remembered that the O.A.T. travelers never came to visit them without surprises from their home states in the U.S. After we gathered in the large comfortable sitting room, Mia grabbed a basket that equaled her size. She and her brother shared the task of taking the basket around the room and their eyes grew wide with anticipation as each guest deposited goodies into the container. Carmela wisely removed the brimming coffer to be shared at a later time in small portions. After whimpering her distress at having to wait for the treats, an exhausted Mia crawled onto the lap of one of the guests and fell into an angelic sleep.
Before leaving this house full of hope and children too, I asked Sergio what was their greatest need. He didn’t hesitate one second, as this problem and the enormity of the solution must plague him day and night. “We need an artesian well dug on the farm so that we have a plentiful supply of clean drinking water for those who dwell in this house, no matter how many. It may cost upwards of 80,000 Euros. It is my dream,” Sergio said with longing. Strange how this man didn’t wish for anything for himself but desired only that which will help the multitude of those he and Carmela have chosen to serve. When my husband and I returned from Sicily, I reached for my checkbook. Who knows what might happen, one traveler at a time?
Meet Carmela, Sergio, and the children of Casa di Maria when you join O.A.T. on our Sicily’s Ancient Landscapes & Timeless Traditions adventure.