When Isabella Delgado entered a national essay contest, she never thought she would win.
“I didn’t expect for me to win,” said the seventh-grader from Sacred Heart Parish in Stamford.
“Christ is Alive,” the annual nationwide essay contest for faith-formation students organized by Communication Center, a distributing company for religious education curriculum in Indiana, called on contestants to write about a time in their life when they felt close to God.
Over 650 parishes submitted essays to the center and only two were selected per grade. In the seventh-grade category, one of the winners was “Little Izzy” from Sacred Heart.
“She’s an amazing kid,” said Debra Quaranta, Delgado’s grandmother and legal guardian. “She is very devout for a child her age. She just amazes me.”
Delgado’s essay, titled “Jesus in Me,” tells the story of receiving her First Communion and her love for the Eucharist as well as the emotional retelling of how her faith helped carry her through her late mother’s battle with drug addiction and death.
Delgado first heard about the contest from her faith-formation teacher, Robert Melia. An essay contest seemed right up her alley; the middle-schooler had been diving more into the arts the past few years, she joined a theater group and had even started writing her own plays.
Still, Melia wasn’t ready for the story she would tell: “I was crying” when reading her essay, he said. The teacher didn’t know why Delgado was living with her grandmother until she explained her mother’s struggles in her essay.
A MOTHER’S BATTLE
Nicole “Nicky” Bennett, Delgado’s mother and Quaranta’s daughter, died in 2015 in St. Louis, Mo., from a heroin overdose. Despite the difficulties she faced from her illness, Quaranta said her daughter was a devout Catholic who never gave up on her faith. That same strength in faith was passed onto Delgado, who leans on God for guidance.
“I love my faith so much because I have a savior,” Delgado said. “Someone came on earth and saved me from my sins. I just pray all the time. It feels good to have faith by your side.”
Quaranta, who hails from Binghamton, raised Bennett there along with her two other daughters, Mia O’Connor and Pariesa Sepanj. Growing up, she said Bennett was an outgoing and well-liked girl.
“She was a very talented young woman,” Quaranta said. In high school, Bennett was a cheerleader and a dancer, while still active in her faith and church. When she was 17, she gave birth to her first daughter, Angelica Wallace. Bennett dropped out of school when she was pregnant and got her own place. She got married, finished her GED and went on to complete classes at BOCES for cosmetology, working as a nail technician.
“But then she got sick,” Quaranta said. When giving birth to her first daughter, Quaranta said Bennett’s C-Section was botched, leaving her with a damaged bladder and in constant pain. She was prescribed opioids to help manage the discomfort, but her use escalated to addiction.
Over the years, Bennett tried multiple rehabilitation programs but struggled to maintain her sobriety. When she became pregnant again with Delgado, she knew she wasn’t in a position to parent her child and asked Quaranta if she would raise Delgado while she tried to get sober.
“She was very unselfish in letting me have her daughter,” Quaranta said. “She said, ‘I’ll never take her from you.’ ”
Growing up, Delgado knew her mother wasn’t able to be with her because of her addiction. Quaranta never wanted to hide her mother’s struggles or lie to Delgado about what her mother was going through: “I was always honest with her and I taught her to respect her mom and that her addiction was an illness,” Quaranta said.
Delgado kept in touch with her mom mostly over the phone. Bennett taught her daughter about the rosary and her favorite saint, St. Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”). Whenever she could, Bennett would send home “joy boxes” filled with toys, candy and a note.
“It felt like she cared about me,” Delgado said, “and sometimes when my mom was going through a hard time and she couldn’t communicate, I still felt like she cared for me.”
Over the years, Quaranta would keep tabs on her daughter’s whereabouts to make sure she was safe. She wanted her daughter home, but she couldn’t force Bennett to stay when her addiction would pull her away. Quaranta said it was “heartbreaking” to see her daughter struggle.
“It was a long journey,” Quaranta said. “When she would go to the hospital or a drug house, I would find her. You had to trust God and you had to pray.”
Quaranta talked to Bennett’s drug dealers, asking if they saw her daughter recently; she reached out to strangers on Facebook to see if they knew where she was staying. In 2013, she went a whole year not knowing where Bennett was. Through a Facebook friend, she found her in Texas on Christmas Eve: “A mother can be just as good as an FBI agent,” she said.
After Bennett’s addiction worsened, it was mother’s intuition that told Quaranta her daughter was gone. Then it was confirmed: on Aug. 21, 2015, Bennett’s body was found in a parking lot in St. Louis.
A memorial service was held for Bennett at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Endicott, just outside of Binghamton. “There was a line of people out the door to visit Nicky and pay respects,” Quaranta said. “People from halfway houses, homeless people, friends.”
At the funeral, Quaranta met people who Bennett helped out while on the street. They talked about Bennett’s love for Dunkin’ Donuts and how she loved finding deals at the dollar store; how she would give away her coffee and spare cigarettes to anyone in need and loved crafting anything into gems. Quaranta is still in touch with a number of them.
“We found out from people on the streets that she was very religious,” Delgado added. “She always wanted to be there for us.”
A SPECIAL DAY
Delgado waited to receive her First Communion in hopes that her mother would be able to attend. Bennett even asked Delgado to hold on receiving the sacrament so she could be there. While it never came to fruition, both Delgado and Quaranta wanted her Communion day on June 30, 2019 to be special.
Quaranta bought a bouquet of yellow roses (Bennett’s favorite flower) and one white rose to put in the middle, a symbol of Bennett protecting her daughter. Delgado helped make a veil out of old pieces of her mother’s dresses and found a dress to wear imprinted with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Everything was so symbolic that day,” Quaranta said. “It was a very emotional day because she was 10 but she put so much into that day. We knew her mother was there to share with her and present her to Jesus.”
“That day was very special to me but it was very sad. Usually you have your mom there, but I didn’t,” Delgado said. “But it made me feel closer to God and it felt really good to receive the body and blood of Christ.”
On the horizon, Delgado plans to continue practicing theater and writing. Laura Josepher, a theater director and audition coach based out of New York City, has been mentoring Delgado since meeting her at a virtual summer camp she led at The Roxbury Arts Group. Josepher was impressed with her student’s drive and imagination and approached her about working outside of camp.
“Theater helped me cope a lot with my mom’s passing,” Delgado said. She continues to meet with her teacher weekly over Zoom, writing plays, journaling and giving her an outlet for her creativity.
“She’s a phenomenal kid,” Josepher said. “Her writing and performing is in a way she can express herself. She talks from the heart.”
Delgado has been looking into making “joy boxes” of her own by filling bags with utilities, toiletries and candies to distribute to those in need or living on the streets.
“She’s my joy,” Quaranta said. “I don’t know if I could have made it through without Izzy.”