Seeing children in Madagascar’s rural countryside communities begging for food and asking God to give them something to eat for the day is “really difficult” for Christian Marcel Ratianarivo.
“When I was a kid, I felt it, and it was really painful,” said Ratianarivo, 32, who grew up in Madagascar and returned to his home country a few years ago as a disaster reduction specialist for Catholic Relief Services.
“I can tell you that I was in that place and it’s the reason why I’m working for CRS right now,” Ratianarivo told The Rhode Island Catholic in a recent telephone interview from Madagascar, which is experiencing one of the world’s most severe food insecurity crises, due in large part to drought and other climate hazards.
Catholic Relief Services’ annual Rice Bowl collection, Ratianarivo said, provides needed resources for the poor communities he serves.
“Seeing the impact of the Rice Bowl is really huge,” he said. “It really helps the people here.”
The CRS Rice Bowl is Catholic Relief Services’ long-running Lenten program for families and faith communities in the United States to put their faith in action. From dropping loose change and bills into a small cardboard box or donating online, the Rice Bowl provides an opportunity for Catholics to support programs that prevent hunger and poverty around the world.
“Even if someone deposits just a few coins, it really does help,” said Father Francesco Francese, the pastor of Holy Ghost Church in Providence who serves as director of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith in Rhode Island, which oversees the local CRS Rice Bowl collection.
In the last 40 years, the CRS Rice Bowl has raised more than $250 million in the United States. Of that amount, $62.5 million went to domestic anti-poverty programs in local dioceses and $187.5 million went to CRS relief programs overseas.
Paul Hicks, the program director for Catholic Relief Services’ agriculture and water programs in El Salvador, told The Rhode Island Catholic that the CRS Rice Bowl is an expression of solidarity between American Catholics and the people that the United States Bishops’ foreign relief agency assists in developing countries around the world.
“I see that as a real part of CRS’ mission, and Rice Bowl is the best expression of that we at the largest scale,” said Hicks, who added that money collected from the CRS Rice Bowl “goes to projects we implement on the ground.”
“With Rice Bowl and other funding that comes directly from parishioners and Catholics who are able to contribute a little bit of their resources, it enables us to be creative, innovative and to reach people more directly, especially those who are within our Catholic network,” Hicks said.
“It’s being very deliberate about how these Rice Bowl contributions connect the people who are contributing it to the Catholic communities that we are supporting on the ground,” Hicks added.
According to Catholic Relief Services, almost 14,000 Catholic parishes and schools across the United States participate in CRS Rice Bowl. The donations help support the agency’s work in more than 100 countries around the world.
The money collected from CRS Rice Bowl funds agricultural projects that help farmers improve harvests; water and sanitation projects that bring clean water to communities; microfinance projects that support small businesses; public health and nutrition programs; and education projects that provide school resources and training.
“The mission of CRS is about providing relief and opportunities and development for the communities and families most in need,” said Hicks, who promotes sustainable agriculture and clean water programs in El Salvador.
Hicks, who has been in El Salvador for 12 years, said he and his team try to connect the work that they do with sustainable agriculture and clean water with creating opportunities and viable jobs with living wages for young people in rural communities.
“So that they have opportunities and reasons to stay, that they can visualize a future for themselves in El Salvador with jobs that provide them living incomes and give them dignity,” said Hicks, who noted that political instability, crippling poverty, gang violence and climate change are negative factors that drive migration from El Salvador to the United States and other countries.
“Migration is an important way that people seek all over the world to generate income to support their families,” said Hicks, who added that about 20 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product comes from the remittances that El Salvadoran migrants in the United States and elsewhere send to their families back home.
“Despite all the challenges, young people are hopeful. They’re always looking for opportunity,” Hicks said. “If we can create those opportunities and open doors for them, they have the energy and passion to take advantage of those opportunities and make a good life for themselves.”
Local parishes and Catholic schools in Rhode Island will be collecting CRS Rice Bowls during Lent. For more information, including how to donate online, visit www.crsricebowl.org.
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