PAWTUCKET — His life was forever changed by a little daily snack that not only fed his deep and grueling hunger, but also nourished his mind, giving him a chance to beat incredible odds to survive the inhospitable life he was born into.
Orphaned before the age of 10 while growing up in a small village in the Republic of Ghana, in West Africa, Thomas Awiapo, the second of four brothers, struggled to survive a hunger that left him with searing pain in his belly each day.
When he learned of a program sponsored by Catholic Relief Services at a school in a nearby village that would provide students with some nourishment as long as they came to learn, Awiapo walked five miles in each direction to visit the school each day.
“I used to walk miles for clean drinking water,” Awiapo said in telling his story of survival to the students at St. Raphael Academy recently during his 10-week, 14-state tour of the U.S. to promote the annual CRS Rice Bowl program.
“I didn’t like school,” he said, playfully describing the experience as being taken hostage. “But if you wanted the snack, you were sentenced to many, many hours of classes.”
And what was that snack? A little bowl of Cream of Wheat.
“Here I am today, alive.”
The CRS Rice Bowl program helps to make such improvements possible by promoting almsgiving. Catholic families are presented with a small cardboard box in which they can place their change or larger donations during Lent that in total can make a difference in supporting the mission of CRS — the official relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — to improve the lives of the poor in roughly 45 different countries each year.
Of the funds collected, 25% stay in the local diocese, supporting hunger and poverty alleviation efforts. Since its inception in 1975, CRS Rice Bowl has raised nearly $300 million.
Awiapo spoke of how one of his little brothers died from hunger and illness one day as he was holding him and another ran away, never to be seen again.
“I was a parent to the little boy,” he remembered of his brothers after they were orphaned, noting how brittle the child was only skin and bones as he died, and there was nothing he could to help him.
“I held my little brother. I thought he was sleeping. That thought has never left my mind.”
Awiapo would eventually have a family of his own and work in Ghana for CRS. He would go on to earn a master’s degree in public administration in California before returning to his homeland.
“Whatever goes around comes around,” he said of the life he has managed to build for himself and his family. “I can provide three meals a day for them. Education is liberation.”