Faith ‘is the answer’ in life of service

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Like the rays emanating from the star-sprinkled blue veil of her beloved Our Lady of Guadalupe, Rosa Colello's faith always has extended outward into the world.

Cultivated in front of a homemade altar to the patroness of Mexico and by her immigrant parents, her love of God fueled a career serving public schoolchildren.

"My parents brought us up with a strict Catholic faith, a love of all people and a desire to serve the Lord and others," said the 66-year-old during a recent interview in her Vienna home. She's been a parishioner of nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel Church for 28 years.

Colello's faith was tested as never before when she was hired last year to work in the diocesan Victim Assistance Office and minister to victims of childhood sexual abuse.

"It was very hard for me, and I've asked the Lord, 'How am I going to deal with this?'" she said. He came back with an answer, said Colello, and it's kept her moving forward, attempting to bring light "into the dark places."

A humble background

Poverty and hard work, along with a devout Catholic faith, pervaded Colello's home life in Michigan. Her parents came to the United States from Mexico with a sixth-grade education, and her father worked as a manual laborer for General Motors.

The altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe was in their living room, and the family prayed the rosary daily.

"My mother was a saint - kind and devoted to God and the Virgin of Guadalupe," said Colello, adding that her mother encouraged her daughters to be strong and independent. "My mom made me a feminist," she said.

Education was of paramount importance, and 10 of the 11 children attended college.

Colello recalls her father telling her and her siblings, "You don't have toys, you don't have a lot of clothes, but you will have a Catholic education; faith and education, those are the best gifts I can give you."

When he could, though, her father brought her toys he'd salvaged at the dump. "The used coloring books and broken crayons were like new to me," recalled Colello.

The youngest in the family, she joined her siblings in summertime field work to bring in extra money. Colello recalls looking at row upon row of potatoes as an 8-year-old and feeling overwhelmed. Her brother told her to focus on one row at a time.

"That experience, working in the fields, it taught me about goals," she said.

Some of her siblings got into trouble growing up, and feeling helpless to assist them, Colello put her energy into helping others. Before she put herself through Western Michigan University working at a pickle factory, Colello organized retreats for troubled inner-city kids, primarily Mexican immigrants and African-Americans.

Seeking out the struggling

Relocating to Virginia in 1973 when her husband got a job with the federal government, Colello spent about two years teaching in Washington schools. She then began a three-decade-long career in Arlington Public Schools. Although she went on to earn a master's from Trinity College (now Trinity University) in Washington and did post-graduate work at the University of Virginia, George Mason and Virginia Tech, growing up poor was, in many ways, her career's compass. "I always seek out challenges, and I wanted to work with the kids who were struggling," she said.

While in D.C., Colello was recruited to write a grant for and help launch a federally funded second-language program for Arlington elementary schools. Expanding over the years, it is now the statewide Spanish immersion program.

Colello feels being bilingual is a gift, one she wanted more children to experience. It's a way of "connecting with more people," she said.

For 13 years, Colello connected with students from diverse backgrounds as a school social worker. She visited homes, spoke with parents and evaluated what was impeding struggling children's academic and emotional growth.

Through her work she encountered many wonderful families, but also all kinds of abuse. "I saw sexual abuse at all ages, little children, school-age children, high school kids," she said.

Colello reported countless cases and went to court hundreds of times. "I had to send people to jail - fathers, mothers, whoever abused the child. I was yelled at and cussed at in the courtroom.

"Sometimes people would give me a hard time for being so strict, for making such a big deal out of it," she said. "But that was what I knew I had to do. That's my strict Catholic background."

Colello eventually worked as a counselor in elementary and secondary schools, starting support groups, recommending therapists and conducting suicide assessments.

Her final stint in public schools was as director of counseling services at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington. It was an especially challenging time, as they were in the midst of building a new school.

"I took the job because we had very few Hispanic role models who were administrators in a community with a large Hispanic population," said Colello. "I'd always wanted a role model like that, so I thought, I'd better do it."

'Led by God'

Colello retired in 2006 and traveled extensively, including to India, Spain and Mexico. She also spent time with her two children and three young grandchildren.

But the energy and feminist spirit passed down to her from her mother brought her out of retirement. For five years she ran a private counseling business, serving primarily Hispanic couples and victims of domestic violence.

Last year, after hours of prayer and reflection, Colello began working as a victim assistance coordinator for the Arlington Diocese.

The job helping adults who were sexually abused as children gave her new insight into her past work with young victims.

"I had a lot of guilt at times; I wondered if I was doing the right thing being so strict" reporting cases and pushing for prosecutions as a social worker, she said. "Now I'm very thankful that I was feisty and reported things, because I see the aftermath and the pain. It affects your whole life, and at least I got those children help. God led me to do the right thing."

Sometimes she thinks: "Why was no one there to help them when they were little?"

As she's attempted to bring healing to adults, she's encountered a powerful test of her devout faith.

Most victims she ministers to were abused by family members, intimate partners or strangers, but when a priest is the guilty party, the abuse is especially heartbreaking. "How could a priest do something like this?" she's often asked.

The question drove her back to her source of strength. "I spent a lot of time with God in the chancery chapel," said Colello. "I said, 'OK, Lord, I'm serving you directly now. Help me not lose my faith.'"

Colello said the answer she received was, "Oh you of little faith. Have faith in me."

For victims, the abusers and for herself, faith is what buoys the soul from pain, she said.

Wearing an Our Lady of Guadalupe medallion given to her by her mother, Colello said her relationship with God has grown stronger as she works and prays her way through her newest job.

"Faith and God," she said, "that is the answer."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015