Students at Mercy Academy spent several weeks learning about the global impact of Catholic Relief Services and its Lenten fundraiser program — Rice Bowl.
CRS is the international aid organization of the U.S. Catholic bishops. And, the CRS Rice Bowl program is a nationwide Lenten fundraiser to support the work of CRS.
Each year, to kick off the Rice Bowl collection program, one of the Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Louisville holds a Rice Bowl luncheon. This year, Mercy was set to host. With a large luncheon scratched because of the pandemic, Kari Sims, director of service learning and leadership at Mercy, came up with another way to involve her students.
Sims and Jessica Vivona, Mercy theology teacher, co-moderate the Make Mercy Real club at the all-girls’ school. Their students learned about and produced a video on CRS’ involvement in Laos, a country in southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the southeast and Thailand to the west and southwest.
The Mercy students worked with Holly Fuller of CRS to understand the needs and struggles of the people served by CRS in Laos. Fuller, who helped connect the students with Laos residents via Zoom, spent four years based in Laos as a CRS country representative and is now the CRS community engagement manager for the southeast region.
CRS began work in Laos more than 25 years ago. The normal model for CRS is to partner with local dioceses and Caritas chapters in countries where they provide aid. However, this is not the case in Laos, Fuller noted.
The aid organization directly partners with the government and its ministry of education to implement programs. In recent years, the primary focus has been to provide nutritional meals to children through partnerships with schools. Each school has a storeroom where food, such as rice and lentils, are stored.
“The point of school meals is to get the kids in school,” the Mercy students explain in the video they produced. “School meals increase attendance and create a more nutritional balance for children in Laos.”
Other CRS efforts in Laos include literacy programs in schools, a clean water program that promotes hygiene and an inclusive education model that ensures children with disabilities receive educational opportunities.
Jenna Metzmeier, a junior at Mercy, said talking with people from Laos and learning about the country opened her eyes to the need that exists in the world.
“I know about CRS, about Rice Bowl and what it does. But, I never knew the back stories. Meeting with people from Laos led me to understand what I can do myself as a Mercy student to help other people learn about it too,” Metzmeier said.
Metzmeier compiled the video about the CRS Laos team and her observations. It can be viewed at archlou.org/ricebowl/.
Anna Hayden, also a junior at Mercy, said it’s important to promote the mission of the Rice Bowl program.
“We are so wrapped up in the trials of our own lives right now, but it’s important throughout our struggles” to remember those in need, Hayden said.
The Rice Bowl program began in 1975 in a parish in Allentown, Pa., as a way to alleviate the effects of famine in Africa. It has grown to include more than 12,000 Catholic parishes and schools across the U.S., Fuller said.
As of 2019, faith communities in the U.S. have collected more than $250 million to support CRS programs that prevent hunger and poverty. Seventy-five percent of proceeds collected by a diocese go toward the global relief efforts of CRS and 25 percent stays to benefit local organizations and agencies.
As with everything else, the Rice Bowl program will look different this year. However, there are numerous resources on CRS’ Rice Bowl website — crsricebowl.org — to get more engaged. Families and faith communities can hear stories about people in need around the world at crsricebowl.org under Stories of Hope. And 40 days of Lent, with daily reflections and activities, are included in the CRS Rice Bowl Lenten Calendar at crsricebowl.org under Resources for Your Family.
The Archdiocese of Louisville has produced videos on Rice Bowl this year, available at archlou.org/ricebowl/. Schools and parishes also plan to distribute resources, including the cardboard boxes many have grown to associate with the Lenten fundraiser.
In the last five years, the Archdiocese of Louisville has donated more than $500,000 to Rice Bowl, according to Fuller.