As part of the official humanitarian agency of the Church, aid workers of Catholic Relief Services travel the globe to provide food, shelter, education and other needs to fellow human beings. One man whom CRS touched is Thomas Awiapo, formerly an orphaned child in Ghana, who credits the agency with changing his life and providing him with an education at a CRS-sponsored school after losing most of his family to starvation. Today, he works for CRS and has traveled around the United States to tell his personal story.
On Oct. 25, Awiapo visited St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute in Kenmore to give a presentation in the gym, also stopping at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora and Mount St. Mary Academy in Kenmore. At the end of his talk, senior Michael Greco presented Awiapo with a hooded sweatshirt with the school logo on it, prompting loud applause and a standing ovation.
"I've been to 48 states. I have two more to go, and sometimes, people are wondering why I'm traveling so much across a beautiful country. Some even think, probably, that I'm running for office. I'm traveling around with a very simple but very important message. It is a message of gratitude, a message of thanksgiving - thanksgiving for a very special gift. It is the gift of Catholic Relief Services," Awiapo said.
According to Awiapo, Catholic Relief Services works in 101 countries around the world and reaches out to 107 million people every year, and he was one of its beneficiaries. He does not remember his parents, who died when he was a small child. In the small village where he grew up, starvation was rampant and his two younger brothers died of it. His older brother ran away, and has not been heard from since. He does not know how old he is since he has no birth certificate. After CRS finished building a school in his village, Awiapo recalled how they convinced him to go, which is how a "trick" would change his life.
"I wasn't Christian. I didn't know what it meant to be a Christian, so I didn't know who Catholic Relief Services was. But they came to my village, and the first thing they did was build a school. But I hated school. I didn't like school, because nobody from my family had been to school," Awiapo recalled. "They started tricking children to go to the school, and so they tricked me. Every morning, they would provide a little snack in that school for children who came. I loved this life, but I hated going to school."
Although Awiapo and the other children did not like the idea of sitting in class, they kept going because they wanted to receive the free snack. He went on to receive college scholarships and got a master's degree from California State University. Today, he has worked for CRS for 17 years and trains its leaders in Ghana, where he lives with his wife and their four children. "I want you to just imagine the power of a little snack in the life of a hungry child," he said. "That little snack gave me opportunity to live this life."
As a result, Awiapo reminded the students to be thankful for education. "Education is simply liberation. It is one of the greatest tools that can bring down the chains of poverty, misery and injustice around our world," he proclaimed, noting he has enjoyed staying in the United States, but lamented how much food is wasted here. When he first had lunch in a school, he was horrified to see how much of it went in the trash.
"I stood there and watched good food being tossed until those trash cans were so full. That was not fun to watch. It was so painful to watch. It brought memories of myself and my three little siblings, when we used to fight so badly over just a little bowl of soup," he lamented. "If you forget everything I say to you today, just take one little message from me: if you are ever tempted to waste food, just remember my face and remember my two tiny little siblings who passed away, and many who are still dying."
According to St. Joe's senior Jesse Brodka, Awiapo's story was a reminder of how, while high school students do charity activities, they do not often see the recipients. "I thought it was just an incredible story," Brodka said. "A lot of times, we do certain charity activities, and we don't get to see the face behind it. I think that was really important. Now we have a face, a story, a reason to give to this cause."
Both Brodka and Greco are student leaders of the Faith Service Community at St. Joe's, a newly formed student organization that goes on service trips and promotes awareness of poverty within and outside the diocese. St. Joe's is an official partner with CRS through the CRS Global High School program, with a website at ghs.crs.org.