Most Catholics in the United States are probably familiar with the CRS Rice Bowl program, which is a practical way to support Catholic Relief Services’ efforts toward development and relief assistance in more than 100 countries.
During the school week before Palm Sunday, students in six high schools in the archdiocese—Iona Prep in New Rochelle; Maria Regina High School in Hartsdale; Archbishop Stepinac in White Plains; and St. Barnabas, the Academy of Mount St. Ursula and Cardinal Hayes High School, all in the Bronx—were given another perspective on the Lenten program beyond filling their Rice Bowls with coins.
The program was brought to life in the person of Thomas Awiapo, who was assisted by Catholic Relief Services as a young boy in Ghana, went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration from California State University East Bay and then worked for CRS in his native land.
Awiapo was a 10-year-old orphan struggling to survive when he first encountered CRS in his village in the northern part of the African nation. He was hungry and found that he could get fed if he attended school, which had a feeding program funded by the CRS Rice Bowl program.
About 40 years later, he still remembers receiving a snack in the morning and a hot meal later in the day.
“Going to school was not in my agenda. I was hungry. The teacher didn’t give you food without you going to class,” Awiapo told me in a phone interview on the last of his three days in New York.
Awiapo’s early years were hard. Besides the deaths of his parents, his two younger brothers also died.
He recalls CRS as a constant presence in Ghana. Until recent years, Awiapo said, the largely Christian country was the third-biggest recipient nation of CRS assistance in Africa. “If you were in Ghana, especially in the northern region, every village you went to, you could see CRS at work,” he said.
Awiapo eventually came to see the food he craved as a means to an end. The lessons he learned eventually could make him and other students like him self-sufficient, able to provide for the nourishment of their own families, a goal of CRS’ efforts across the globe.
Today, he and his wife have their own family of four children ranging from ages 10 to 23.
The community where they live understands the value of education and now produces its own rice, beans and other vegetables.
Awiapo said he will never forget the aid and assistance CRS provided in Ghana. “CRS walked with us as a country,” he said. “It showed we can do it.”
For the past 10 Lenten seasons, Awiapo has come to the United States to tell his story from both sides of the CRS Rice Bowl, as a recipient and as a CRS worker. This year, he was here for 12 weeks, and was looking forward to going home to his family when I spoke with him April 12.
He has spoken at churches, schools and universities and conferences in 49 states. Nebraska is the lone state he hasn’t yet visited.
One thing he stresses to students is the important role of parents. “They can take that for granted,” he said. “I can tell them how painful that was, and to cherish the gift of their parents.”
Another lesson he strives to pass along is that food should not be wasted. “I tell them to think twice, because there are many children in the world who are hungry,” he said.
Part of the joy of telling his story is hearing how it is received, Awiapo said. One student recently said he would never complain about internet speed again.
“What I have shared with them makes them appreciate what they have,” Awiapo said.
Iona Prep student Jordan Gyapong said connecting the work of the CRS Rice Bowl program with a person who was speaking directly to students, faculty and others at Iona Prep made all the difference.
“Once it’s personal, it’s really an inspiration for the students,” he said.
When I caught up with Jordan by phone, he was outside San Juan, Puerto Rico, on a mission trip with a group of Iona Prep students helping to reconstruct a home badly damaged by Hurricane Maria.
“It’s really been a blessing for many of us,” Jordan said. “It’s all about the experience—it’s a life-changing moment.”
Awiapo said it would be hard to overestimate the role of personal stories in relating the story of the CRS Rice Bowl program. “People don’t give to numbers. They give to faces, to people, to stories.”