Ithaca opens heart to India - Catholic Courier

Ithaca opens heart to India

What began as a casual conversation between parishioners and a visiting priest is now a thriving ministry, aiding folks on the other side of the globe.

Father George Allam recalled that in 1998, he was telling people from Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception Parish about the plight of deprived residents in his native India. There, the caste system limits the least privileged — “untouchables” — to such jobs as removing dead animals and human bodies. Such people are barred from entering hotels and obtaining drinking water from wells.

“I told them the only way to bring them up to the level of these high-caste people in dignity and esteem is education. Only through education can they get a good job and be recognized as decent people. Then they stand on their own legs; they need not depend on high-caste people,” Father Allam said.

From there, Hearts’ Cry — a grassroots charity that sponsors these people’s education — was born in 1999. The organization grew rapidly, noted founder Ellen Wheeler, an Immaculate Conception parishioner.

“I was on the social-ministry committee and asked if the parish would be supportive of this effort. They loved the idea,” said Wheeler, who currently serves as Hearts’ Cry program coordinator.

In 2001 Hearts’ Cry went from a parish-based ministry to becoming incorporated; it now includes people of various faiths, cities, states and countries. According to Kim Alexander, treasurer, the outreach has raised nearly $200,000 since its incorporation. Along with cash gifts, Hearts’ Cry accepts new or slightly used goods such as jewelry, religious items and some clothing.

All these donations are funneled to Mattampally, the village in southern India where all Hearts’ Cry recipients reside. The local coordinator there is Wilfred Santhiagu, who handles accounting as well as distribution of goods. She also obtains details about needy residents and forwards the information back to Ithaca. Santhiagu works in tandem with Father Allam, who serves as a Catholic high-school principal near Mattampally.

Father Allam said Hearts’ Cry sponsorships were originally geared toward the purchase of school clothing and supplies, and to take students on educational excursions. Now the ministry serves nearly 200 children and, two years ago, expanded to include the elderly poor of Mattampally who receive food, toiletries and clothing. Hearts’ Cry also assists in efforts toward famine relief and literacy — and, more recently, has committed to building a community center in Mattampally.

The growth of Hearts’ Cry has been “a really interesting journey. It’s taken on a life of its own,” Wheeler said.

“We never thought this would take such a big shape,” Father Allam added.

Father Allam served at Immaculate Conception for four months in 1998 while on sabbatical. The priest — who often stays in the New York City area during the summers — recently made a return visit to Ithaca just before going back to India. He celebrated the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sept. 5, and spoke about Hearts’ Cry at a reception that followed in the parish hall.

Also at that reception, Alexander told the gathering of nearly 50 people about her trip to Mattampally this past January. She explained that she went to India “to ensure that the money we were forwarding was being properly spent,” she said. Indeed, it was: Alexander visited more than 100 households and saw not only the items that had been purchased with Hearts’ Cry donations, but also noticed prominently displayed photos of the sponsors’ families that had been sent with the gifts. “It really made me realize how one-to-one this organization is,” Alexander remarked.

During that trip she was also the special guest for a large celebration honoring the work of Hearts’ Cry. Alexander, who purchased and donated the land for the soon-to-be-constructed community center, emphasized that many other Hearts’ Cry donors have made significant contributions as well.

“They put me in a cart and paraded through town. The children did dances and it lasted two or three hours — just an unforgettable welcome. There must have been 2,000 or 3,000 people,” Alexander said.

Wheeler and her husband Mark, an attorney who serves as legal counsel for Hearts’ Cry, made their own memorable trip to Mattampally in 2001. “We knew (Hearts’ Cry) was growing, and was going to be more of a commitment. We came away even more so committed,” Wheeler said, adding that she was moved by “seeing the level of poverty — the people have nothing. It’s hard to imagine, when you’re here in the United States, that people can survive that way.”

As successful as Hearts’ Cry has been, the call for help is still a loud one. Wheeler frequently conveys this need by placing brief profiles of the Mattampally residents in Immaculate Conception’s parish bulletin. “Right now we have 196 children sponsored, but we have another 300 that need sponsoring,” Wheeler said, adding that Hearts’ Cry is sponsoring 15 to 20 homeless elders but another 100 need help.

Despite the work still to be done, Alexander said there are many joys to celebrate surrounding the success of Hearts’ Cry thus far.

“It really is a case of people saying ‘I can do something,'” Alexander said, adding, “You really feel like you have a one-to-one connection with the child. They feel like there’s somebody halfway around the world who cares for them. I also know there are these children who get up in the morning and say a prayer for me — Father George says ‘remember your sponsors,’ and they pray for me.”

Wheeler, meanwhile, finds spiritual satisfaction in her extensive commitment to Hearts’ Cry. “I really feel this is a calling. God is the wind in my sails — this is his project, and it’s been by his grace that this has grown,” she said. “To see there was nothing and what’s there now, it’s a miracle. God must love the people in this village so much. He obviously has big plans for them.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: To become a sponsor for Hearts’ Cry, make a one-time donation or learn more about the program, call 607/272-7164 or write to Hearts’ Cry Inc., 102 Woolf Lane, Ithaca, NY 14850. You may also e-mail or visit

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