By Art Wigchers
People often ask what drew
me to Catholic Relief Services. Twelve years ago when my wife and I first
started donating to CRS, it was just another good charity to support.
Three years after making
that first donation, I went to East Africa and saw for myself the great work
CRS and its local partners were doing. Then, I became more than a donor; I
became one of its biggest advocates.
On that trip, as I left
Ethiopia, I asked Meki Bishop Abraham Desta what he wanted most. He said it was
to expand the middle school in the Bale region in southeastern Ethiopia. The
area’s population is about 90 percent Sunni Muslim and 10 percent Ethiopian
Orthodox with very few Catholics. He targeted this school as studies have shown
that children who go to school together between the ages of 8-12 are unlikely
to fight each other later in life. We agreed that the school must continue to
accept children of all faiths, encourage girls to attend, and have high
Later, I had this nagging
question: what if the school did not exist? So I returned the next year and, to
my great relief, the school existed, had grown, and was flourishing. This
confirmed my passion for CRS helping those most in need, regardless of race,
religion, or nationality. The students taking the 8th grade examination to
qualify for high school have had the best test scores in the region the last
two years, with approximately one half of the students being girls. This last
statistic is most meaningful as only one in six girls in this region is
literate. I can't think of a better example of how CRS, through its local
partners, reaches remote areas where governments do not go.
Most of us relate CRS with
disasters such as the Haiti and Pakistan earthquakes and the South Asia and
Japanese tsunamis, and conflict areas such as Darfur and South Sudan. What
makes CRS truly extraordinary is it already has staff on the ground in these
remote areas*. Thus, CRS is poised to immediately help with rescue and relief
responses when disaster strikes. What does not make the headlines is its great
work in the redevelopment phase where it continues working for years helping
people restore their homes, schools, farms, businesses, and communities.
Aside from disaster
assistance, CRS quietly helps people learn life-changing skills. Last fall, I
was at a CRS program near Meki that provides assistance in well drilling and
trains people how to maintain the pump and neutralize the fluoride in the
drinking water. The program relieved the village’s young girls from having to
walk miles to retrieve family drinking water, which means they now can attend
Equally compelling was a
discussion I had with some women who participate in the CRS savings and
internal lending communities program. These women formed a group, pooled
their money, and now reloan it based on simple business plans. This is a
powerful tool in an area where income may only be a dollar a day and there are
no banks. Some women were using the loan to purchase better seeds, thus raising
better crop yields. I asked one of the farmers who had been successful in
repaying her loan what would she like to try next. Later, the woman appeared in
front of me, looking down shyly at her feet as she spoke to the interpreter.
Her powerful words stayed with me. She said she would like to borrow money to
rent land from some of the people who were not fully utilizing their land and
then expand her crop production, assuring her children could continue their
schooling. This woman, with no formal education, was as much of an
entrepreneur as I was with my MBA.
You can see from my
experiences in Ethiopia, CRS not only saves lives, it provides people with the skills
to change their lives. It is truly amazing how every donation can help
bring meaningful changes that help develop better lives for those most in need.
Art Wigchers serves on
the National Foundation Board of Catholic Relief Services and has traveled to
Pakistan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Peru, Zimbabwe, and
South Africa on behalf of the organization. He is the retired president and CEO
of Zilber, Ltd., and continues to serve on the board of Zilber, Ltd., as well
as the board of Catholic Financial Life and the Board of Trustees for Cardinal
Stritch University. He has a long history of service to community
nonprofits, Catholic organizations, and his parish.
*CRS is working through
Caritas to help in the current situation in Japan. Caritas in developed
countries operates like our Catholic Charities in the United States.