As Jenna Cain’s 10th birthday was approaching, she wasn’t thinking about the presents she wanted. She was focusing on other people’s needs.
“In school I read articles about places where people don’t have clean water,” says Jenna, a fifth-grader at Columbus Elementary School in Thornwood, N.Y. “I felt awful because water is necessary to live.” She decided to turn her birthday into a vehicle of life for others.
She asked her mom to tell relatives and friends that instead of giving her a birthday gift, Jenna would like them to give the money to a charity that would make sure people have clean water.
When Jenna’s grandmother, Eileen Cain, heard the request, she was moved to tears. “I couldn’t get over that a child so young could be so generous,” says Eileen. A longtime benefactor of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, she sent her donation in Jenna’s name to us. Jenna was ecstatic to learn that Maryknoll Father Ed Schoellmann would use the gift toward a water system in his parish in Tanzania’s Shinyanga district that would provide clean drinking water to people in this remote area.
“I am very glad to help others. If we are getting things we want and others don’t have things they need, their needs should come first.”
I invited Jenna to visit our Maryknoll Society center in Ossining, not far from her home, so I could personally thank her for her gift and tell her more about our work with the world’s most vulnerable people. I could see Jenna’s eyes light up as I took her and her dad on a tour of our museum. “I loved seeing pictures of people around the world and how Maryknoll helps them,” she said.
Jenna told me that besides helping Maryknoll, some of her birthday gifts were sent to the humanitarian organization Hands Up for Haiti to bring clean water to that Caribbean country, where her pediatrician, Dr. Elliot Barsh, has been volunteering his medical services.
I was blown away when Jenna told me, “I am very glad to help others. If we are getting things we want and others don’t have things they need, their needs should come first.”
Speaking with her parents, I discovered where this vivacious young girl gets her worldwide heart. “We try to give Jenna and her older sister, Shannon, an awareness of the world around them to put into perspective our issues with the struggles of others,” says Jenna’s mom, Kristen. A corporate lawyer, Kristen says she does pro bono work whenever she can. Jenna’s dad, Michael, a mechanical engineer, has been a volunteer with New York Cares, a non-profit organization that mobilizes people to help poor local communities.
Michael says he hopes Jenna’s generosity will inspire others. Apparently it already has.
Jenna admits that when her friends first heard about her birthday request, they were a little taken aback. “But then they thought it was a good idea and got into it,” says Jenna.
Jenna, who told me she enjoys playing outdoors with her friends as well as acting, playing sports, reading, drawing and doing math, says she also enjoys attending religious education classes at her parish, Holy Innocents in Pleasantville. When she grows up, she hopes to become an orthopedist and maybe visit places where she has been able to help. But for now, her mission is clear. “I try to follow Jesus, who helped others by providing food and water while he preached about God’s reign and how to worship God,” she says. Spoken like a true missioner!
Featured Image: At the Maryknoll Museum of Living Mission, Brother John Blazo (r.) shows Jenna Cain and her dad pictures of people Maryknoll missioners serve. (A.Marsolek/U.S.)