SARASOTA, Fla. -- Faith, family and fellowship make up the foundation of Fernando Rivera's life…a life of helping others.
Fernando works as a Healthy Fathers-Healthy Families educator for Jewish Family and Children's Services of the Suncoast.
But he has another nearly full-time job -- one that he does out of the goodness of his heart -- as a Jack-of-all-trades volunteer at St. Jude Catholic Church.
He expresses his faith through music. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Rivera started taking piano and organ lessons at age 10. “This is my call; as many people as I can help, as many people as I can bring and help through music and singing.”
A few years later¬, when his family moved to Virginia, the church they attended was without an organist. “The lady said ‘can you please help us out for one mass only?’ And from that one mass it never stopped.”
Something quite similar happened when Rivera and his family relocated to Sarasota. They became involved with the Hispanic congregation at St. Martha Catholic Church. “After mass I went to introduce myself to Father Celestino, and I said ‘Father, if you ever need an organist, I play the organ.’ And he said ‘When can you start?’ And it was just like that.”
“For me, he was an angel.” Father Celestino Gutierrez says he had been praying for years for a music director. “The music is fantastic. Even the American people who speak English, some of them like to come to hear the music. He makes a fantastic impact here.”
St. Jude Catholic Church opened in 2006 after the Hispanic congregation outgrew its space at St. Martha.
Rivera is the choir director at the church. He also does music for special events, organizes blood drives, runs a fatherhood mentoring program and started a youth group.
“You know you can rely on him. You know if you call him for something he'll come through with it. He will never say, ‘No, I can't.’ He will make time.” Kathy Schersten is in charge of fundraising at St. Jude. She nominated Rivera to become a 7 Who Care honoree because he's been volunteering tirelessly for more than 20 years. “He is very dedicated to what he does. He has a lot of talent, he practices what he preaches, if he says he's going to do something he follows through and he sets an example for others including his sons.”
Rivera's sons, Fernando and Luis, and his wife Ivaleese, value their close bond, especially since Rivera was diagnosed with leukemia in 1995.
He received a life-saving bone marrow transplant from his brother, and generous financial and emotional support from his fellow parrishoners.
“It's been a good experience, because not until are you in that position do you see that life can be taken away. But faith is the most important thing for me.”
Rivera says volunteering comes from his heart, and he never expects anything in return. “When someone comes back to you and says thank you for what you've done for me, and just thank God because he has given me the gift to provide you with something. That’s how I want to make sure that I'm remembered.”