Published January 18, 2007
Leaning on its 52 years of working in Pakistan, Catholic Relief Services provided shelter, clean drinking water and refurbished schools to help over 166,000 Pakistanis following the 2006 earthquake that killed 73,000 people, thus earning the “Star of Sacrifice” award from Pakistan.
Last year CRS celebrated its 60th anniversary of serving in India and following the tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed an estimated 200,000 people, launched a $195 million, five-year relief and construction effort for that and other Asian countries devastated by the natural disaster.
Its work in Madagascar includes building roads, providing training in agriculture and nutrition programs for mothers and their children, as well as helping artisans to more deftly coax handiworks from their looms in the capital of Antananarivo. CRS staff work long-term in 99 countries around the world.
The official international relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, CRS has evolved in its over 60-year history from being an expression of solidarity to war-torn populations in Europe and Asia following World War II into one of the world’s leading relief and development agencies to promote peace and development worldwide, with a secondary focus to educate and engage U.S. Catholics in the organization’s work.
Now CRS has opened its first Southeastern regional office at 229 Peachtree St. in Atlanta as part of an effort to provide more direct support in international education and advocacy to local communities and to better reach Catholics “in the pews.” It is one of six regional offices that CRS has added over the last four years.
On Feb. 20 CRS will hold a formal dedication from 12:30-2:30 p.m. with the executive leadership team and bishops from the Southeast. An open house will follow until 6:30 p.m. The public is invited to the events.
The new regional director, Dorothy Grillo, and senior program officer for engagement and advocacy, Simone Blanchard, spoke passionately the morning of Jan. 5 about their new work to engage Southern Catholics in CRS’s work on behalf of the poor around the globe, from supporting the Ghana cocoa farmers cooperative in their desire to earn a living wage, to teaching mothers in one impoverished village to prepare more meals rich in vegetables. Blanchard presented a slew of royal blue pamphlets and booklets describing their pastiche of programs in hopes of making “global citizens” and heightening the social consciousness of American Catholics on the grating poverty in the developing world. She offered a CRS Divine chocolate bar, which she believes is a great product for school and other groups to sell for fundraisers, while supporting farmers in Ghana. Some 47,000 members of Kuapa Kokoo, a farmers association in southern Ghana, handpick the cocoa beans and also own one-third of the company that owns the Divine brand, ensuring their fair share of profits and business decisions.
“It’s the only Fair Trade chocolate cooperative in the world,” said Blanchard.
Blanchard previously worked for Catholic Charities in Atlanta as director of parish and community ministry while Grillo served as the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C. Both were also their diocesan CRS directors. Grillo loved her previous job and said that she had such a deep respect for CRS that this was the only opportunity that could lure her away.
“This was such an incredible opportunity to serve and live my faith,” Grillo said.
But the director is now proud to work for such a noble nonprofit, which spreads the Gospel through its action worldwide, a quiet giant of compassion deeply engaged in penetrating communities through the church and other community partners and conducting emergency relief work as well as long-term development work worldwide in areas of micro-finance, agriculture, education, community heath, HIV/AIDS and peace building.
“CRS is always committed to taking a very comprehensive look at the needs of people. It’s more than just initial emergency and charitable outreach. Everything we do is looking through what we call the justice lens. Peace building, sustainable development and these kinds of activities are always part of our overall program, so we may start by responding to a specific emergency and meeting these very basic pressing human needs of the person, but the commitment goes beyond that to become involved in peace building and development.”
Grillo also previously worked as a psychotherapist and taught social work at the University of Cincinnati, and “the common theme has always been a dedication to working for the marginalized. I started with children with disabilities, then persons with mental illness, to poor in the U.S. and now combining all of that working on behalf of the poor overseas by educating Catholics in the United States,” she said. “It’s really an honor for me to serve in this capacity.”
The need for education is exigent, as although she went through Catholic school through college she didn’t learn about CRS until 1999 working in Charleston, where “my first reaction when I learned what CRS does was—why didn’t I know about this organization?”
The office is interviewing to hire program officers for healthcare partnerships, for youth and young adults, and for Latino and general outreach. Their office manager is Linda Collins. They will partner with Catholic Charities of the Atlanta Archdiocese, which has a history of supporting CRS programs such as Operation Rice Bowl, where persons reflect on specific humanitarian needs CRS is addressing and raise money while eating simple vegetarian meals during Lent. In 2004 the program alone generated about $8 million nationally.
Some parishes are already holding Work of Human Hands crafts sales and Fair Trade coffee sales that guarantee fair prices to craftspeople that might otherwise be exploited in the sale of their products. The archdiocese participates in the CRS partnership with Café Campesino in Americus, along with 13 other Fair Trade roasters across the United States, including Larry’s Beans in North Carolina. The pioneering Fair Trade roaster Café Campesino deals directly with coffee farmers to ensure that they receive a living wage and help them develop better farming methods. Interested persons are invited to join CRS for a retreat Feb. 23-24 at Koinonia farm community in Americus to learn more about the Fair Trade economic model built on guarantees of paying a fair price, working with democratically run cooperatives, providing technical assistance and credit on fair terms and making long-term commitments to producers. And they can experience the roasting process while inhaling the nutty aroma of beans from Guatemala to Indonesia at Café Campesino.
CRS’s effectiveness is evident as in 2004 roughly 77 percent of CRS’s operating revenue came from the U.S. government, while about 20 percent came from private contributions. Approximately 94 percent of all revenue goes to support its programs.
Grillo explained that they follow the Catholic teaching on subsidiarity in employing many staffers native to the country being served who best know the culture and language, including many non-Catholics in minority Catholic countries. That diversity alone witnesses to “how different faiths can respect each other and work together for the common good.” Their primary partner in every country is the Catholic Church, which in many developing countries such as Kenya is often a critical resource as an integral provider of education and social services to their communities. While Americans often take the public education system for granted, the church supports many schools in Kenya that aren’t Catholic to help them stay open, for example.
“In many developing world countries the Catholic Church is really one of the primary providers of health care and education. In developing countries it is often the church who actually manages or operates clinics and hospitals; even public schools are managed by churches because the government doesn’t have the funds or capacity.”
She emphasized that their education initiatives, such as helping establish parent-teacher organizations, are particularly unifying for communities as they attract parents from various religions and backgrounds wanting to help their children get an education and address needs at school. In some communities in Africa, where more than 40 percent of women lack access to basic education, they’ve also helped parents organize and petition the government to eliminate a school fee for girls that doesn’t apply for boys.
“It demonstrates very concretely that people coming together have a stronger voice and can work for the common good.”
She recalled traveling to Benin and Togo in Africa and non-Catholic areas where CRS was helping teach women how to prepare more nutritious meals and not over rely on the starchy cassava. It was also providing microfinance loans with very low interest for women as they often have little or no access to credit. This program is active in over 30 countries and provides the poor, especially women, with access to small loans and reliable financial services.
“One of the things that struck me was the level of professionalism of CRS staff and the incredibly warm welcome that we received from all the people in local communities working with CRS. The entire village would come out to celebrate the fact we were there, and we are talking about the poorest of the poor.”
At one village women presented the leader of their delegation with a basket of green leafy vegetables from their harvest. While these women didn’t know the story of the widow’s mite nor any Scripture, they lived the Gospel.
“It was a powerful example of giving from your want rather than your surplus. What a powerful lesson we all have to learn from these people who had nothing and yet wanted to express their thanks and honor us for coming to be with them. That was so important that they gave us what would absolutely be one of their most precious commodities—food from their field. It was so powerful, so touching.”
And she was encouraged to see in villages where CRS had been active for years in health programs that “the children in the villages looked healthier. …You could certainly see the tangible effects in an increased standard of living in villages (where CRS) had been operating for a number of years.”
About 30 percent of CRS’s budget goes to emergency work. In West Darfur, Sudan, they provide roughly 150,000 desperate people in the region with food, shelter, water and sanitation, education and agricultural support, and manage with a local partner Chad refugee camps. According to CRS reports, after three years of government militias pillaging villages, hundreds of thousands have been murdered and thousands still die monthly of malnutrition, disease and insecurity. Militia assaults have resumed, limiting CRS access to the area.
Blanchard said that in emergencies they are more effective because of their diverse native staff and their partnerships and support of community-based organizations.
“It makes us very well connected and more easy to mobilize in the case of a disaster if we already have a relationship,” she said, adding, “We believe in building the local economy and hiring local experts.”
CRS also supports the USCCB Justice for Immigrants Campaign and has an acute view from the field on the root causes of entrenched poverty abroad and a unique perspective on immigration reform. Grillo believes it’s important for U.S. Catholics to understand the economic and physical circumstances driving people to migrate.
“They are very, very family- and extended-family oriented. It’s a tremendous (personal) sacrifice, not just a physical sacrifice,” said Grillo.
However immigration policy is reformed, CRS will steadily continue fostering development overseas in times of peace and relief through the disasters of life.
“It’s very important for people to know that there are very effective programs and projects going on that make a powerful and positive difference in people’s lives,” Grillo said.