March 31, 2017

Former starving orphan shares story of help, hope through Rice Bowl

Thomas Awiapo, a native of Ghana who works in that country for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), shares with students of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis his story of survival through the CRS Rice Bowl Campaign on March 14. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Thomas Awiapo, a native of Ghana who works in that country for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), shares with students of Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis his story of survival through the CRS Rice Bowl Campaign on March 14. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Thomas Awiapo, a native of Ghana in Africa, held up one of the small cardboard containers distributed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

“This little box is called a rice bowl,” he explained. “I call it a gospel of love. I call it a sacrifice of love. … This little box is so dear to my heart. I cherish it. It is the reason why I am standing here.”

“Here” was Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis, one of four Catholic schools where Awiapo spoke in Indianapolis on March 14 and 15.

Providence Cristo Rey is a school for students from low-income families that is a partner in the CRS Global High School program, seeking to educate about Catholic social teaching and advocate for solidarity with the global poor.

Awiapo, who is now a married father of four and works for CRS, shared his story of hope and of the impact made by the CRS Rice Bowl Campaign.

‘Many crooked lines in my life’

Awiapo was orphaned when he was young. He does not know how old he was when his parents died—in fact, he does not know exactly how old he is now.

“I grew up in a village that never had electricity,” he said. “I never knew what it was to have running water. … My [three] brothers and I would fight each night over one bowl of food,” he said.

He watched his two younger brothers die from malnutrition—the youngest dying in his arms—and his older brother ran away, unable to cope with the circumstances.

Awiapo was saved by what he calls “a trick.”

“Catholic Relief Services came to our village,” he said. “They built a school. I hated school … .

“But they tricked me into going to school. Every morning they provided just a little snack,” a bowl of cream of wheat.

“I was a hungry child, so I really loved that snack. They decided to tie the snack to the school... . But I kept going every day just for a little snack.

“Today, I am standing here fully alive, holding a master’s [degree] in public administration. My job today is actually treating other children to school. How neat is that? What goes around comes around.”

Awiapo explained that, despite his wanting only to go to school for the food, a teacher took an interest in him, giving him responsibility and encouragement.

He started making better grades. His life began to change.

“I connect all those dots, all those great experiences and not so great experiences, and they all have a place in my life and who I am,” he said. “I wouldn’t give any of them up for anything. I think they helped me be what I am today.

“I didn’t have parents, but I had a Catholic priest who sent me to high school. I didn’t have parents, but I had some religious sisters pay for me to go to college. I ended up getting a scholarship doing a master’s in public administration in California, and I finished and went back to my little country.

“I think there were many crooked lines in my life, but God was able to write so straight on those crooked lines.”

‘Different kinds of snacks’

But talk of a helpful God was not possible in his younger years, said Awiapo, who is now Catholic and was one year away from being ordained a priest when he met his wife.

“I was angry at God for a long time,” he admitted. “I asked him many questions. ‘Why me? Why my parents?’

“But I realized God didn’t take away my parents. They just died. But in place of my parents, God put into my life wonderful people who helped me out.”

Helping others is a form of giving a “little snack,” Awiapo explained.

“I think there are many people in our communities and our schools and our families who also need some snacks,” he said. “But some people need different kinds of snacks. It’s a snack of love, a snack of friendship, a snack of help with a school assignment, a snack of just putting a smile on the face of someone who is a little sad. … A little snack is not always food or money. God blessed us with different talents so that we can use them to offer little snacks to one another.”

With blessings, said Awiapo, come responsibility. He points to his own life as an example.

“What makes me want to go around and share my story?” he said. “It’s a painful story to share. When I share it, it hurts. I share it because I hope and pray it touches a heart and mind that people can do something so that a child somewhere in this country or somewhere in the world will not go through what I went through.”

Another reason he shares his story, Awiapo said, is that “when you grow up in your little community, you think that is the whole world.

“It’s important to share with you to let you know there are other places where children still walk five miles to go to school. There are other places where children go to school under a tree—the tree is actually their classroom. There are still countries where the minimum wage is less than $2 a day. There are still places like where I come from, where children can only have two textbooks, and maybe a pencil.”

To help others in such situations, Awiapo encouraged the students of Providence Cristo Rey to contribute to the American-based, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops-founded CRS and its Rice Bowl Campaign.

“For the weeks of Lent, whatever you save will certainly put a smile on the face of another child,” he said. “It’s not just a box. We are people. We are faces.”

He also told the youths that they are “so blessed to come from this country, a country with so many blessings and possibilities.

“If I can come from nothing to this point, I think you can do better than that. I entreat you to take advantage of every possibility that comes your way. I think education is simply liberation, and you should take advantage of every opportunity.”

Encouraging parents in Ghana to send their children to school is his primary role now with CRS.

“We still have places where poverty makes people think, ‘Why waste time sending a child to school? Let the child stay home and work on the farm. Let the girls stay home and do house chores. Let them sell something to make something for the family.’ They are looking for instant gratification and immediate results. They forget the value of education.”

‘Global citizens—part of Catholic identity’

Providence Cristo Rey principal Brian Dinkins said Awiapo’s message was spot-on for the students of his school.

“He exemplifies most of our stories here,” said Dinkins. “That’s who we serve, children who come from poverty … but not even on the level that he had to deal with. They needed to hear that. They connected with that.

“And his story gives us hope. I think we need to see what God has done in [Awiapo’s] life and [how God] is using him to be a messenger around the world that there is hope and that God loves you.

“For many of our young folks, they need to hear that [suffering] is not punishment. He lost his siblings, but like he said, they just died—it wasn’t punishment. That’s a story our young folks need to hear.”

Lydvine Adjahouisso, a Providence Cristo Rey freshman from the African country of Benin, can attest to the poverty Awiapo described.

“I think his story is very related to the kids in Africa,” she said. “For many people it is hard to get money and food. I [saw] those kids. They cry every day looking for food. It’s sad.”

Raising awareness of global poverty and helping those living in such conditions is a goal of Providence Cristo Rey as a CRS Global High School, said campus minister Kate Brown.

As a CRS high school partner at the silver level, the school is required to participate in the Rice Bowl Campaign and host one CRS-related schoolwide event. Having Awiapo speak to the students and faculty met the second requirement.

“We want our students to be global citizens,” says Brown. “It’s part of their Catholic identity.

“For our students in particular, students who come from low-income families, we want to make them aware of the world and that they have things to give—they have prayers to give, the little bit of money they’re giving goes a long way, and that attitude of gratitude, being grateful.

“They do have a lot of struggles, but they have a lot to be grateful for and a lot of opportunities. Having [Awiapo] point that out was great as well.”
 

(For more information on Catholic Relief Services, log on to www.crs.org. For information on the Global High School program, log on to ghs.crs.org.)

Local site Links:

Like this story? Then share it!