By TARA CONNOLLY Staff writer
Mercy School for Special Learning, Allentown has gone global … that is global in the sense that they will advance the mission of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) as part of its Global High School Program.
Jeff Wallace, CRS relationship manager with the Diocese of Allentown, and Thomas Awiapo, visited the school Feb. 21 to meet with high school students who will represent the first school for special learning to contribute to the mission of CRS.
Mercy students will specifically support CRS Rice Bowl – the organization’s Lenten faith-in-action program that invites people to reflect on how an encounter with a neighbor can be transformative. The program also calls on the faithful for prayers, fasting and alms to support those worldwide who are forced to flee their homes to find safety or better opportunities.
Students encountered Awiapo through his personal story about being raised in a village in Ghana after the death of his parents.
“My parents had four little boys. After they died, sometimes we cried for food, fought for food or went to bed very hungry,” he said.
Within months of his parents’ death, Awiapo said his little brothers died and his older brother ran away, leaving him alone in the village with a few relatives.
Awiapo often went without food until he learned that food was available at school if he attended.
“It was just a little snack of cream of wheat. I walked five miles to school and five miles home just for that snack,” he said.
“I stand before you today because of that snack that came from change people gave to Rice Bowl. I have a job and my kids don’t go hungry because of that snack. I stayed in school for that little snack,” he said.
Awiapo told the students that many children in Africa are facing starvation.
“There were times I was discouraged. I wanted to give up until I thought about that little snack awaiting me at school. Now I can help other people. God is great and God gives you certain things to help others. God blessed you and God blessed me so we can help others. We all have something that can help another person,” he said.
Awiapo also told the students that a small act of kindness can save a life.
“You do a lot to show people you care here at your school and community. You can also help people far away,” he said.
While 25 percent of Rice Bowl contributions are dispersed locally, Awiapo said 75 percent of the donations are distributed to people around the world.
“Your country is very blessed to have lots of clean water. Where I am from, we have to go to a river for water that is not always clean,” he said.
During his visit to the school on an unseasonable warm day with temperatures above 70 degrees, Awiapo admitted that he was still cold and gained a few pounds from eating snacks unavailable in Ghana like ice cream and French fries.
“We can all offer someone a snack every day. We can offer people a snack of friendship, a snack of love and a snack of helping one another,” he said.
“It’s not about how much money you give. It’s about the significance of what you give. That little snack was the best gift I have ever received in my life,” said Awiapo.
He then opened his talk to questions from the students, who inquired if he knew any blind people, the date of his birthday and if he could sing a song in his native language.
“I knew many blind people. We used to call it ‘river blindness.’ because they would become so sick from the water and the disease would spread to their eyes and they eventually went blind,” replied Awiapo.
As for his birthday, he told the students he did not know when he was born because he was born in a hut to parents who did not know how to read or write. When it came time for him to obtain a passport, he had to estimate the date of his birth and swear before the court.
“I had to lie. I did not like that, so I don’t celebrate a birthday. But my friends will call me and remind me that my wife has a birthday and I try not to forget that day,” said Awiapo.
Obliging to the song request, he ended his talk with a song in his native tribal dialect as students swayed and snapped their fingers.
Mercy students then returned the act of kindness and performed their first global mission act by singing “Happy Birthday” to Awiapo.