By David Cooley.
Around 65 student representatives from five high schools and 12 elementary schools participated, Feb. 15, in the annual Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Operation Rice Bowl kickoff luncheon at Bishop Howard Memorial Auditorium, Covington. The local (CRS) Rice Bowl event is co-sponsored by Catholic Charities – Diocese of Covington and the diocesan Office of Stewardship and Mission Services. At the event the junior high and high school students learned about the popular CRS Rice Bowl Lenten project, local poverty and what local social service agencies are doing to face the challenges of the community.
Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. CRS Rice Bowl is Catholic Relief Services’ Lenten program for families and faith communities in the United States who want to put faith into action. Through CRS Rice Bowl, participants hear stories about people in need around the world, and devote Lenten prayers, fasting and alms to change the lives of those who suffer in poverty.
As students and guests entered Bishop Howard Memorial Auditorium they were directed to three interactive displays created by students from St. Joseph Academy, Walton. The displays provided information about a few of the countries that CRS serves. The students who created the displays offered information about the countries and its greatest needs.
During lunch students were assigned to specific tables with leaders representing one of several local agencies that assist the poor and marginalized in the area. The table leaders were: Andy Brunsman, executive director, Be Concerned; Vicky Bauerle, institutional advancement manager, Catholic Charities; Brandy Mendaugh, case manager of Catholic Charities’ St. Joseph Apartments; Benedictine Sister Cathy Bauer; Connor Creaghead, assessment and resource coordinator, Welcome House; Gina Cornelius, housing counselor, HONK; Jill Hilgefort, executive director, Faith Community Pharmacy; Karen Zengel, executive director, Society of St. Vincent de Paul; and Kim Webb, executive director, Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky. Each leader explained to the students how his or her organization serves the community. The students reflected on what they heard and brainstormed ways they could bring the information back to their schools, inspire other students and make a positive impact in the world.
The CRS keynote speaker was Daniel Mumuni, program manager, McGovern-Dole Food for Education program, Sierra Leone. The McGovern-Dole Food for Education program provides food for children in school. In West Africa, many communities depend on agriculture for food and income. As a result, children commonly drop out of school to help parents farm the land to help make ends meet. While helping in the fields provides some support to the family, a child without an education faces long-term obstacles.
Offering meals to children doesn’t just keep them in school, it also encourages parents to become more engaged and committed to improving their children’s education. Mr. Mumuni has witnessed this firsthand — parents have volunteered to upgrade school facilities by providing and transporting building materials. This is their way to show they believe in the importance of education, and to prove that they have the power to build their own futures.
Mr. Mumuni shared his personal story of growing up in Ghana. He was lucky, he said, to have parents who believed in the value of a good education, who ensured that he and his siblings all had the best education possible despite the meager family resources. The fact that he was able to achieve a quality education in one of the most deprived regions of Ghana has shaped his worldview and is why he does what he does. As a father of two daughters he works hard to provide what is best for them and when he sees the poor and the most vulnerable, he always sees them through the eyes of his children and remembers from where he came.
Sierra Leone, where Mr. Mumuni works, is still recovering from the civil war that raged between 1991 and 2002, that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people (about a third of the population). Sierra Leone remains among the least developed countries in the world, ranking 183 out of 186 countries. Life expectancy is 48 years and youth unemployment is 70 percent. Rates of child and maternal mortality are high, levels of education are low and, despite rich resource endowments and abundant land, more than 60 percent of Sierra Leoneans live on less than $1.25 a day.
“CRS has been working in the most remote parts of Sierra Leone” to make sure the people’s basic needs are met, Mr. Mumuni said. “CRS has been working in the communities (of Sierra Leone) to advocate for more children to be put in schools. Not only do we provide opportunities for children to obtain school and a hot lunch, we also provide transportation and infrastructure; we build classroom blocks, we provide teaching and learning materials, we provide water, sanitation and more.”
Mr. Mumuni asked the students why they thought it was important for them to learn about other people living in poverty in other places around the world? He asked them how these stories connected to them or why they mattered at all?
“Every day the children in Sierra Leone pray to God for support before they start school. They pray for better lives for their parents, for good health, for a good education, for a good future. But, what does that prayer mean? It is calling on God for help. How does God answer prayer? He answers through each of us. That is how God works. We are all vessels, instruments of God,” said Mr. Mumuni.
“We are commissioned by our humanity and by our Christian faith to be each other’s keeper. This quote from Matthew’s Gospel has always touched me deeply: ‘Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers you do unto me.’ … This is why we should all be interested in what happens in another country and what happens to people. Because the world is connected.”
Through CRS Rice Bowl, faith communities throughout the United States put their faith into action. Lenten alms donated through CRS Rice Bowl support the work of CRS in roughly 45 different countries each year. Twenty-five percent of all donations to CRS Rice Bowl stay in the local diocese, supporting hunger and poverty alleviation efforts. Since its inception in 1975, CRS Rice Bowl has raised nearly $300 million. More information and resources can be found at https://www.crsricebowl.org.