Charity creator says she learned to give from her generous mom

LEWISTON – Goodness grows.

It’s the lesson Pauline Alighieri learned as a girl when she watched her parents, Paul and Helene Ouellette, make gift baskets for poor folks while their family business sat in ashes.

“The good goes around,” she said recently. “I know.”

Alighieri has helped turn grief over a friend’s death into a Massachusetts-based charity that has raised almost $5 million to fight cancer.

And her mother is still helping folks.

Helene Ouellette is preparing to lead the eighth annual Jack-O’-Lantern Parade in Auburn this fall. The Halloween spectacle of carved pumpkins has raised more than $18,000 for the Maine Children’s Cancer Program.

“If everybody gave a little bit, it’d be a much better world,” Ouellette said, quoting Bill Clinton. “Little things grow into big things.”

This week, as she prepared to celebrate Mother’s Day with her seven children and six grandchildren, her charity received a boost from Alighieri’s Friends of Mel Foundation.

The Massachusetts foundation made a donation of $18,000 to the Maine Children’s Cancer Program.

“This is a tribute to mom and the work of all the volunteers there,” Alighieri said. And if it’s a spotlight on a lady who has never sought attention, that’s OK, too.

“To her, it’s not a big deal,” Alighieri said. “But it is. It really is.”

Right thing to do

Helene and Paul Ouellette raised all seven kids on the profits they made from their Lisbon Street store, Joyland.

Tucked into the once-bustling downtown, the store sold children’s clothes, toys and furniture. It featured a four-horse merry-go-round in its lobby and was a one-stop shop for new parents in Lewiston-Auburn.

Often, young couples with little money left the store with a crib, clothes, toys and “a minimal payment,” Alighieri said.

To Paul Ouellette, it was the right thing to do, said his daughter. If his profit shrunk, his sleep improved.

Money could be scarce.

One day, when they were having a rough patch, the priest from St. Patrick’s Church appeared at their door, Helene Ouellette said.

“It was Father Feeney, and he was carrying a basket,” she remembered. “He said, ‘We have ways of knowing.'”

Every Christmas after that, the Ouellettes made elaborate baskets to be given away at the church. Even when fire destroyed Joyland, they managed to collect items for people who were less fortunate.

And though Paul Ouellette died several years ago, Helene still gives to the church baskets, donating two cases of oranges each year.

Passing it on

Alighieri learned by watching her parents.

“It’s a lifestyle you adopt,” she said. “You learn to pay it forward.”

Like them, she volunteered at her children’s school and lent a hand in little ways. She didn’t expect to be a charity leader.

Then Alighieri, a flight attendant with Delta Air Lines, watched a co-worker and friend named Mel Simmons fall ill to breast cancer.

“I watched her battle,” Alighieri said. “I was very moved by it.”

To cheer her up, fellow flight attendants picked up gifts from around the world, pins from Russia, soap from France and bracelets from Turkey.

When cancer killed Simmons, friends sold the bracelets for donations to the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, hoping to raise $5,000. But when the goal was reached, they kept on going. Flight attendants kept bringing the beads back from Turkey. Stores began asking to sell the bracelets.

When the total surpassed $300,000, administrators from Massachusetts General asked for a meeting with Alighieri and her friends.

“They said, ‘We’ve got to talk,” she recalled.

In July 2006, the Friends of Mel Foundation was formed as a nonprofit organization and Alighieri was named president.

More than 200,000 of the bracelets have now been sold, most at $15 a piece.

Alighieri, who continues to work for Delta, has been trying to learn the subtleties of leading a multimillion-dollar charitable organization, she said.

The group has just established a regular office in Hingham, Mass. The gift to the Maine Children’s Cancer Program was meant to be a first step into Maine, Alighieri said.

More will follow, Alighieri promised.

“I’m really proud of what Pauline does,” her mother said.

Of course, she’s proud of all her kids, who will gather back home in Lewiston on Mother’s Day.

Though they are spread out across the country, they try to return for the holiday.

“I’m very lucky,” Ouellette said.

Each of the children works to help people, giving to charity or merely stopping to help a stranger.

When she had to endure rehabilitation following shoulder surgery, each of the seven kids took a week of vacation from their jobs and came home to care for her so she could remain at home.

“I guess my husband and I did something right in bringing them up,” Ouellette said.

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