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Using scissors to cut out a piece of art, volunteer Laura Caraccio holds the close attention of three children who come to the Moral Values Program.

Sacramento Bee/Lezlie Sterling

Above and Beyond: Caraccio's caring way is at home with kids

What she learned from Mother Teresa is passed to others in Sacramento.

By Silvina Martínez -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Sunday, December 8, 2002

She first saw the poor on the streets of Calcutta but soon found poverty closer to home, almost hidden in a Sacramento neighborhood off Highway 99.

Working with Mother Teresa in the missionary's austere Home for the Dying, Laura Caraccio learned love and simplicity.

Each day, with a glass of water or a cloth on the forehead, the then-24-year-old Californian helped the sick die with dignity.

Today in Sacramento, in another Spartan home, she brings dignity to dozens of children whose families can't or don't know how to love them.

"It's a deeper poverty," she said.

Caraccio is a slender 40-year-old who grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Orange County and spent her college years digging through the meaning of life.

Last year, she heard about Frank Victorio, a man helping youth in Sacramento, inspired by the example of Mother Teresa's work. Caraccio came to Sacramento to share with him slides of her work in Calcutta.

Victorio is the director of the Moral Values Program, or MVP, an in-home support system helping youths left isolated by abuse and neglect. The program receives its financial support primarily from grants.

Children come to MVP to do their homework, receive praise if they do well, advice if they don't. Some leave after dinner, and others stay.

Caraccio decided to stay.

"She asked if she could come and dedicate her life to this," said Victorio, who runs the program out of his home on 32nd Avenue.

Caraccio moved next door, to a small, three-bedroom house with unmatched furniture that MVP uses as a learning center, and soon turned it into a home. She lives there, working without compensation, and her basic financial needs are provided for by MVP.

It is where 5-year-old Elias now comes each day after school, to curl up with teddy bears on Caraccio's bed and be a child, a chance he hadn't had before.

He and Ana, his 7-year-old sister, are attached to Caraccio. Their mother can't take care of them at home, so every morning, Caraccio fixes them breakfast and irons their school uniforms, and each night, tucks them in after story time.

Another 60 to 80 children also come to the house after school each day.

Caraccio mothers them all.

One day earlier this week was like many others. Four eighth-graders sat in the kitchen preparing for a tough exam, and 20 others did their homework at long tables lined up across the living room.

Caraccio, trained as a science teacher, first sat with them all, then alone with Angel, who had brought home an F and needed her the most.

During play time later in the afternoon, she was still on duty. As the older children shot baskets in the back yard, the youngest sat on her lap, hugging her and showing her their drawings.

Brigitte told Caraccio that a friend had called her a "copycatter"; 6-year-old Leti wanted to know if it is bad to call people "hard-headed."

Caraccio offers answers, lessons about right and wrong interwoven with words children understand.

A University of California, Irvine, graduate, she'd prefer not to talk about herself but, rather, share what she learned during her three missionary trips to India and quote Mother Teresa: "Let's preach not by words, but by our example."

"I operate out of my heart," she said.

Before coming to Sacramento, Caraccio spent five years living in a modest Santa Ana house serving the homeless, then taught in a middle school in southeastern Los Angeles.

"I felt frustrated having to fail kids. Who has really failed this kid? Why did he fail? There was no time for each child individually," she said.

Now, she's another sort of teacher, seemingly with time for everyone but herself. Yet, she doesn't dwell on it: "I see my friends who have kids, and it's not that different. When do they have time for themselves?"

Hundreds of volunteers have helped kids at MVP over the years. But none like Caraccio. "Not to this extent," Victorio said.

"I look at Laura, and I know there's a God."


About the Writer
---------------------------

Is there someone you know who has gone above and beyond, giving of himself or herself in some remarkable way? Please contact The Bee's Silvina Martínez at (916) 321-1159 or above@sacbee.com.


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