Thomas Awiapo says he owes his life — literally — to the annual lenten fundraiser known as CRS Rice Bowl.
The little cardboard box that collects loose change on kitchen counters throughout Lent supports Catholic Relief Services, the charitable arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overseas. The Rice Bowl boxes are available in parishes and schools now with Lent beginning next week.
Awiapo shared his story with more than 170 students who gathered at Mercy Academy for a special program on CRS last week. He began by singing a cappella the hymn, “They will Know we are Christians by Our Love.” And then he described his childhood in a small, impoverished village in Ghana, West Africa.
He and his three brothers were orphaned while still young boys. Awiapo noted that he doesn’t know his birthday or how old he is, but said he was very young when his parents died. He watched as his two youngest brothers died of malnutrition and his eldest brother fled the village in search of something better.
Awiapo said he scrounged for food and suffered from malnutrition until Catholic Relief Services opened a school in his village. The school served a snack in the morning and a hot lunch in the afternoon, but children had to attend school to receive the meals.
“I loved the snack, but I hated school,” he said, noting that he didn’t understand the benefits of school. “They tied the school to the snack. I was ‘taken hostage’ for the love of the little snack. And if you wanted lunch, you were sentenced to many more hours of school.
“I kept going to school everyday,” Awiapo added. “That is why I stand here today. My job now is tricking children to go to school.”
Awiapo, a father of four children ages 4 to 16, works for CRS in Ghana.
“I am actually a living testament to what happens to the little sacrifices in this box,” he said holding up a Rice Bowl box. CRS “brings so much hope and so much dignity in the lives of
so many millions of people. I’m so glad that I can look at you and say thank you so much.”
The crowd at Mercy Academy included students from 26 Catholic schools around the Archdiocese of Louisville and 23 refugees who were resettled in Louisville by Catholic Charities, which organized the event. The students and refugees were seated at tables together where they ate lunch and had the opportunity to learn about one another.
The students who attended the lunch and presentation will be doing fundraisers for CRS throughout Lent in their schools and parish communities.
Awiapo told the students that the sacrifices they make for the Rice Bowl fundraiser will directly affect the work of CRS.
“You role is just as important as those doing hands-on work in developing countries,” he said, noting that the Rice Bowl project raised $7 million last year. “Whatever you give up for Lent, change lives. That is how my life got changed.”
At the end of the program, students were asked to think of some ways they can promote Rice Bowl in their communities.
Mark Bouchard, who works in the Catholic identity and external relations office at Catholic Charities of Louisville, said St. Francis of Assisi School students were quick to volunteer. They plan to call all of the archdiocese’s 111 parishes and 47 schools four times during Lent to check on Rice Bowl fundraisers.
In addition, Bouchard said, “A number of teachers want us to come back and speak to their classes. Some of them were stunned by what they saw. And they really enjoyed having refugees seated at their tables for the luncheon. That kind of exposure can be really compelling.”