Perhaps the firmest rock of the Catholic Church is not a cathedral, or — forgive a Protestant for saying this — not even the pope. A great source of strength are the older women who go to Mass, light candles and then use that glow to serve God and do good for humanity.
Old-time movies often portray them as Italian, Mexican or Irish, wearing headscarves and shapeless house dresses. That stereotype has passed away, and one reason it has are modern doers of good works, such as Jean Colarusso.
Colarusso is a La Jolla homemaker of 78, wife of a physician, neighbor of millionaires and matron of a house that looks out over the ocean. Mah-jongg, anyone? No one would blame her if she owned 50 pairs of shoes, half of them red.
Not this daughter of a tool and die maker. She learned at an early age that charity is most meaningful when coupled with sacrifice. That truth was revealed to her at age 10 when she turned down a nickel reward from an old woman who needed the money more than she wanted it. She tucked away that feeling in her heart, and points to it seven decades later.
All of that is fine, but we’re not here to talk about a nickel, but 60 million nickels: $3 million. That’s how much this woman and her donors have spent to ease the burdens of the needy.
She is president of a charity named Friends of the Poor, or FoP. The name was not chosen by whimsy.
Colarusso’s instincts for charity were honed by an association with Anita Figueredo, M.D., who back in the ’40s was believed to be the first female surgeon to practice in San Diego.
She joined Figueredo’s efforts to improve health care in Tijuana when the two women and the late Mary Rupp of Solana Beach started their nonprofit charity in 1982, and in 1988 founded Clinica Pacha. The clinic is still serving the poor of Tijuana and is a training center for the UC San Diego Medical School. Another of several other projects that FoP initiated in Mexico was a tuberculosis clinic in Tijuana’s La Mesa penitentiary.
In 1998, a visiting priest pointed Colarusso in a new direction of giving, and her compass has not wavered. That year, Monsignor Stephen, a native of Nigeria, appeared at Mary, Star of the Sea church in La Jolla and spoke of his vision for serving the poor of his country. Colarusso was in the audience.
“I was already loaded down with commitments, so all during Mass, the only thought in my head was: I’m not getting involved. But after the service, when he greeted me, the words that came out of my mouth were, ‘What are your most pressing needs?’ ”
A new purpose was born. Nigeria became the new mission for FoP. Among its projects serving the poor of that country, the charity has:
• Helped complete a cathedral that seats 5,000.
• Founded and operates the Holy Family orphanage, with room for at least 100 children.
• Founded and operates the Mother of Mercy hospital, pharmacy and HIV clinic that cares for HIV-infected pregnant women and, using the latest drugs, has achieved almost 500 HIV-free births.
• Founded and operates five schools for 75 to 80 children each.
• Founded and operates a boarding school academy for approximately 250 girls.
Given the scope of those projects, one could easily visualize Colarusso as the head of a fundraising effort that could jerk the slack out of every dangling donor. But it’s just not so. She says the greatest single donation to FoP was $100,000. That’s lunch money for some philanthropists who live in La Jolla.
So, in a garden that grows checkbooks heavy with zeros, why isn’t FoP near the front of the line?
“I know a lot of wealthy people, and when I say wealthy, you better believe it. Many are good friends, but they don’t give anything, and I don’t know why.”
Do you hit them up?
“Uh, no, and I’ll tell you why. If I’m with friends, and they ask me what I’m doing and how I’m doing, and they know that I need money, and then what happens? … Well, nothing. But on the other hand, I don’t ask, either. I’m not averse to begging, because I do it all the time, but not from them.”
Apparently, a soft voice and gentle manner don’t always rake in the big bucks. Maybe she should hire a Ginsu knife salesman.
Instead, she says, in the past she scraped together funds through personal money, parking-lot sales of furniture, and even her personal jewelry. Colarusso says she and the other volunteers pay all of their own expenses, including airfare to Nigeria.
Teresa Doyle of La Jolla is the treasurer for Friends of the Poor and daughter of the revered Figueredo, who died in 2010 at age 93. Doyle says of Colarusso, “She’s a never-ending source of inspiration to me. She is a blessing to everyone she meets.”
Doyle says 100 percent of FoP donor funds go toward the charity’s projects. There is no paid staff; directors take no payment and are major donors themselves.
Knowing that Nigeria — the home of Internet bank schemes — has fairly earned its place as one of the world’s most corrupt societies, Colarusso says she monitors every expenditure to make sure some fat-cat contractor is not eating on FoP’s tab.
“I know where every penny goes. I’m over there once or twice a year, and I see where it goes. We pay workers very well, but I’m really a stickler about accountability, and they know it — ‘Momma’s coming, momma’s coming.’ ”
Considering that you and the rest of FoP receive no income, what do you think of the huge salaries given to executives of American charities?
“I think it’s an abomination. They’re not in it for the charity. It’s graft. They’re taking the money that people are giving for a cause. I’ve always hated that.”
Colarusso is not only presiding matron over a charity, but of a family of a husband, three children and six grandchildren. To be a mom and boss has required tight scheduling to avoid cutting short family time.
“When I showed my son a video of our work, he said, ‘When did you do all this? You were always there when I got home from school.’ I never allowed the roles to conflict.”
If you discern that Jean Colarusso is a soft-spoken woman of generosity, the orphans of Nigeria would readily agree.
But for one who monitors loose change, not generous to a fault.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions. Contact him at [email protected]