Giving those in need a hand up

By Michael Sinnett

Michael Sinnett is Vice President of Shelters at Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Denver.

On a recent medical mission to the town of Ayaviri, high in the Andes mountains of southern Peru, I met a man whose elbows had been frozen at a 45-degree angle for 20 years. He couldn’t dress himself. After an examination, one of the doc-tors gave the man an injection in his elbows. Within minutes, he had some range of motion. He started to cry. And he was so excited to go home to give his wife a hug.

My job was as a volunteer. I don’t have a medical background, so I would register patients to get their height and weight, then take their temperature. Then they would be taken to a triage table to determine their ailment and the priority of their care. The ages of the patients ranged from six months to 93 years.

The poverty is just unbelievable, but the culture of faith is so deep there. You try to see the face of Jesus in the people who need help and love on them. There was a young girl who had a tumor on her cheek. And an older man with a serious infection of the eye. The doctors were able to help them.

For more than 10 years, Ken and Dede Chism have been coordinating Medical Missions to Peru, in conjunction with Caritas, the equivalent of Catholic Charities in Ayaviri. Years ago, their daughter Abby and my son Justin (who are married) started helping with the coordination of the mission. Three years ago, my wife went. Now it was my turn to go.

It’s not inexpensive, about a $3,000 investment per person. About 70 medical care providers and volunteers took the trip from Oct. 12-20. There were people from Florida, Texas and California, and from Colombia. Our group flew from Denver to Miami to Lima to Cusco, where we toured the Cathedral of Cusco, which was built beginning in the mid-1500s and completed in the mid-1600s.

Then we took a five-hour bus ride to Ayaviri on a gravel road. It’s not a vacation. Medical providers are leaving hospitals and their practices to be in Peru. The group included eye doctors, physical therapists, pediatricians, OB/GYNs and ten dentists. We would provide pharmaceutical medicine and vitamins, medical supplies and ongoing services. Everything was paid for through donations raised by the mission team. More than 1,400 people were served in a very remote area where care is not easily accessible, let alone affordable.

Before we arrived, Caritas arranged for radio announcements and fliers to announce that the medical mission was coming. For crowd control, they issue tickets. The townspeople know we are coming and prepare their town by picking up trash and sweeping the roads to welcome us. Their gratitude runs deep in this very private culture. One patient captured it this way:

“We love them and will wait for them because they take care of our bodies and our souls.” We had a patient show up in the back of a cart. Justin, a captain with the Littleton Fire Department, walked out, scooped her up and brought her right into registration and physical therapy.

It’s an amazing experience. We stayed at a seminary in Ayaviri, where Bishop Kay resides. He celebrated Mass every morning and heard confessions. He was very present in the mission and served as a translator. Most of the people speak Spanish, but the older Andean people still speak their native dialect, Quechua.

The children are beautiful. And all the ladies have hats, none of them duplicated. Moms use blankets as backpacks, doing a burrito roll-up of the infants and tying it to themselves. After four days at the clinic, we did some home visits on the last day and also brought rice and macaroni. The homes are very simple, made of mud or concrete, with galvanized roofs. In one home that I went into, the wife had been bed-ridden for 10 years.

What I took away from this mission is that no matter where you are, there are poor people who have needs. Whether in Peru, or downtown Denver, people need help and a hand up — not a handout.

COMING UP: Ways to give to the poor this Christmas

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Giving to the poor is something we should all do as Christians, but as we remember that Christ gave himself to us when he became man, the Christmas season is an especially good time to give more to those less fortunate.

“Saint Lawrence answered it best,” said Father Ron Cattany, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. “They are the treasure of the Church!”

The Cathedral serves the poor year-round through their breakfast sandwich line, midday grocery pantry and afternoon snack. It’s also open 86 hours a week to provide a place of security, warmth and refreshment through the use of bathrooms, Father Cattany said.

“The poor offer to you and me the grace to live a Life of Beatitudes. Their needs just might be our road to salvation,” Father Cattany added. “Remembering the poor at Christmas should remind us of their daily needs.”

Here are a few ways you might give to the poor this Christmas season.

Father Woody Giveaway
Every year at the Cathedral, people hand out $20 to the homeless to honor the tradition of Monsignor C.B. “Father Woody” Woodrich. This year, it takes place on Dec. 14 at 9 a.m. Father Cattany estimates between 700 and 1400 people to attend the event, which begins with a Liturgy of the World proclaimed by Regis University students, a “discussion about our support for those in attendance on their spiritual and life journey,” and envelopes with Father Woody’s image and cash inside, he said.

“Two years ago, as I was giving an envelope to one of the attendees, he gave me an envelope back. He said, This is a gift for you — it contained six cents,” Father Cattany said. “Last year I showed that envelope to the attendees. As a result, several of the folks gave me their prayer books and special items and asked me to hold on to them until this year. I will share them on Dec. 14th. Our bond with these wonderful folks is one of the most sacred bonds we will ever experience.”

With Catholic Charities
Catholic Charities in Denver has several different ministries that offer several opportunities to volunteer. Visit their volunteer hub and give your time in any of these areas: Family and childcare, housing and shelter, women’s services, senior services, mentor/teaching, special opportunities and group opportunities. Samaritan House, a homeless shelter, and Marisol Health, a women’s health clinic, are great places to serve.
Visit the volunteer hub at

Through your parish
Pay attention to the giving opportunities going on at your parish, as most parishes participate in some kind of giving during the holiday season, from food pantry drives to having parishioners help visit the homebound.

Give money
Colorado Gives Day is Dec. 5 this year, so it’s a great time to consider donating to any special causes or charities near to your heart. Other creative ways to give monetarily might be to pay for someone to go home for the holidays or to tip generously when you go out to eat.

Send gifts
There are plenty of organizations where you can donate gifts to children or families in need. Donate to Compassion International to provide a gift for a child in need here:, or donate a shoe box of items to a child in a third world country through Samaritan Purse here: You can also donate your family’s unused clothes still in good condition to a clothing drive, especially socks and mittens for colder winter weather.

Give time
Spending time with others is another great way to give. Visit the elderly at Mullen Home in Denver, or visit the homebound and help them cook, clean or decorate. Helping with children at daycare, babysitting for a family to give the parents a date night, or bringing meals to a new and exhausted family are other great ways to give your time. Christ in the City also serves meals to the homeless ever second Saturday of the month and invite anyone to come volunteer and spend time with the homeless. For more information, visit

Give food
One of the more traditional ways to give during the holiday season is participating in soup kitchens like Denver Catholic Worker Soup Kitchen or at a parish. Donating food to a local drive or preparing holiday meals to give to people in need is another way. You can also bake cookies and give them to neighbors or friends going through a tough time.

Adopt a family
Know someone in need in your community? Have friends and family pitch in to help provide for them this season, such as buying Christmas dinner for a single mom or low-income family and bringing them a few gifts.

Other ideas for giving
Many people are lonely during the holidays. Give by inviting someone to your Christmas dinner, especially if he or she doesn’t have a family to spend it with. Another way give is spiritually: Invite someone to go to Mass with you or to join you in prayer.