(Submitted photo of Melanie, daughter, Marbella and husband, Miguel, courtesy Melanie Mendez)

Like the colorful pillows she teaches students to make, there is something bright and beautiful at the center of Melanie Mendez’ life – her faith.

Mendez is the art specialist at St. Rafael the Archangel School in Milwaukee, a job she sought after eight years of teaching at a private, non-religious school for children with emotional and behavioral challenges.

“You couldn’t talk about your faith,” she explained in describing her former workplace. “It saddened me too much to not be able to talk about faith with kids I thought needed it the most.”

The tipping point came when Mendez asked students in her advanced art class to bring in a picture of something they wanted to draw, and six of the seven brought pictures of Jesus.

“It moved me so much that these children wanted to talk about Jesus, and there wasn’t a place to do that,” she said. “I certainly pray for them all the time, that they’re in a situation where they can talk about Jesus.”

Mendez vowed to find a faith-based school in which to continue her teaching career. Within a month, Mendez learned of the job opening at St. Rafael. This is her second year at the school.

People of Faith

Name: Melanie Mendez
Age: 35
Occupation: Art specialist,
St. Rafael the Archangel School, Milwaukee
Parish: St. Gregory the Great, Milwaukee
Favorite movie: “Paper Clips, ” a 2004 documentary
Book recently read: “Belonging to God: A Personal Training Guide for the Deeper Catholic Spiritual Life,” by Msgr. Charles M. Murphy
Favorite quotation: “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” (Rom 12:18)

“I wanted faith to be a central part of my professional life,” said Mendez. “I felt that I was giving up, but that God would lead me in the correct direction.”

It was not an easy move to make, Mendez said, because she had developed such an affection for her students at St. Amelian-Lakeside. Among her duties was helping students who had been in trouble with the law complete and document court-ordered community service hours. That led to the development of a service learning class for all students.

“Melanie has always had immense patience while working with our highly at-risk population,” former co-worker Deanna Malmstadt said in an e-mail. “I feel that her faith is revealed in that she consistently treats all of the students equally and finds something special about each one of them. She finds projects for these students who haven’t had a lot of success in their own lives to make them feel valued and important.”

Mendez taught her students at St. Amelian-Lakeside how to make decorative pillows using a reverse appliqué technique known as mola, popular in Panama and other countries. Colorful layers are anchored by a central piece of fabric; the appearance is like ripples on a pond.

The pillows were exhibited and sold at a 2007 event at her alma mater, Alverno College. The $600 proceeds were used to purchase six sewing machines for the fledgling Centro de Costura Sewing Center in the Dominican Republic.

The sewing center is part of Los Toros Mission, supported by St. Joseph Parish, Grafton. Los Toros also is the hometown of Mendez’ husband, Miguel; he was the first recipient of the parish’s college scholarship benefiting a student from Los Toros.

Los Toros is adjacent to Sagrada Familia (Holy Family), the sister parish of the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

The couple plans to go to Los Toros this spring or summer with their 3-year-old daughter. Melanie, who is expecting the couple’s second child in late August, is eager to see the sewing center and a newly-built café that will provide income to one of Miguel’s cousins, who serves as a volunteer pharmacy technician in the community.

“I very much honor the project that my students did and what our contribution was, but the people in Grafton and what they’ve done to start this program and to sustain it, that’s them – it’s all them,” Mendez said. “What they’ve done has allowed educators like me to become involved.”

Mendez is the first full-time art specialist St. Rafael has had, so she has worked to develop its long-term art curriculum. Outside the classroom, students are becoming involved in the Junior Docent program at the Milwaukee Art Museum and in the Peacemakers Among Us photography program at Alverno.

“One thing I’d like to do is be sure my curriculum is culturally relevant,” said Mendez, noting that 92 percent of the school’s 335 students are Hispanic.

As an art teacher, Mendez sees her job as “helping students understand that their creativity is a gift from God, and they should see that light and how it can come out in their talents.”

In her first year at St. Rafael, Mendez used the theme “I am an instrument of peace” in her classes, incorporating the life and lessons of St. Francis of Assisi into her instruction. The concept was so successful that a school-wide theme was selected for this year – “We are the light of the world.”

Mendez was raised in “a very devout Christian Catholic home” in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and attended Lake Superior State on a full scholarship for 2.5 years. Transferring to Alverno – she graduated in 1999 – set into motion the events that led to her faith-filled life of today.

One of the most meaningful activities for Mendez is the weekly school-wide Mass. She serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at the Masses.

“I see something different in my students when I offer them the (blood of Christ),” she said. “You see each other as fellow human beings, not as students and teachers or staff. You’re all there together to worship.”

Mendez said she was “tearful” when the first staff meeting she attended at St. Rafael began with a prayer. That was just the start of an enhanced prayer life that also includes weekly Bible study.

“It’s a responsibility I feel, but one I know is making me a better teacher, a better human being, a better parent, a better wife,” she explained.