GREENWICH — Sarita Hanley, a board member of the Catholic Relief Services foundation, saw the devastation in Haiti after an earthquake claimed 300,000 lives, and she has traveled to Iraq, Ethiopia, Egypt and Lebanon to witness global humanitarian efforts firsthand.
On Wednesday, she brought a message of hope to Fairfield County about what the Church is doing to help the poorest and most vulnerable people of the world, including children in war-torn Afghanistan.
“Thousands upon thousands of people I have seen have benefitted from CRS, which is involved in helping and aiding the poorest of the poor in 114 countries,” she said. “Their lives have changed, and I want to tell the world.”
Hanley of Stamford and Lennie de Csepel, a parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena who has been a supporter of CRS for 40 years, hosted a presentation at Riverside Yacht Club, featuring Conor O’Loughlin, the organization’s representative in Afghanistan, where a community-based education program has helped more than 36,000 children since 2003. Some 6,000 are educated daily, more than half of them girls.
“For ordinary citizens in Afghanistan, there is hope,” O’Loughlin said. “Sometimes the perception is that of hopelessness, but there is another side to the story. What CRS is doing is preparing future generations for the future.”
When CRS arrived in the country, only 1 million out of 12 million children were receiving a primary education, from grades one to six. Today, in cooperation with government initiatives, 8 million are being educated. At first, the challenge was to get villagers to understand the importance of education for girls. Today, the challenge is meeting the demand.
“The main barrier to education is remoteness,” he said. “In many of the communities where we work in marginalized areas, parents won’t send their children, particularly their girls, 10 or 15 kilometers away to government schools because it’s not safe.”
CRS is working with the Ministry of Education to integrate its classes into the formal system. These efforts are concentrated in five provinces in the central highlands of the mountainous country, some 10,000 feet above sea level in villages of about 400 people, where there are no public services and little or no electricity, he said.
O’Loughlin told the story of a 10-year-old girl named Marzal, who was the first girl to receive an education in her community. She was also the first person in the village to read and write.
CRS supports 300 classrooms, which are set up in donated spaces. A person with the necessary credentials is trained and certified to teach. A school management committee is selected in each community to oversee enrollment and attendance and deal with problems.
All the school supplies, heating and teacher salaries are paid for by CRS, which is backed by private donations from America, and aid from the United States and Great Britain. He said 93 percent of all donations goes directly to the program.
The cost to fund a classroom of 20 students for one year is under $10,000 or an average of $500 per student.
O’Loughlin recently met three 16-year-old girls who had gone through the program and were applying to the university to study medicine and education.
“They said that without the CRS program, they never would have gotten a primary education and would be still living at home, married, unable to read or write, and never have had an opportunity in life,” he said.
Although Catholic Relief Services, which is based in Baltimore, is a Christian organization working in a Muslim country, there is community acceptance, O’Loughlin said, adding that assistance is provided to the needy, regardless of race, creed or nationality. Of his staff of 380, all but 10 are Afghans.
“They know they are working with a Christian organization,” he said. “They are some of the most dedicated and professional people I have ever worked with. They believe in what we are doing by living out the values of Catholic social teaching.”
He said, “Afghan families want the exact same thing as families in any other country. They want opportunities for their children. They want security, they want healthcare and they want future opportunities for their families.”
After the presentation, Father Michael Boccaccio, diocesan director of the Pontifical Mission Societies Office, which oversees CRS, talked about a trip he made last year to Ethiopia and the challenge of providing clean water to the population.
He emphasized the importance of the CRS mission and said, “There is no particular qualification for needing help. CRS does not care about your creed, your color or anything like that. Its mission is to help the most vulnerable and poor.”
Sarita and Greg Hanley, who have lived in Stamford 25 years, support many Catholic programs. Over the past two decades, she has worked with New Covenant Center, Malta House, the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport, and the Order of Malta. She is also a founding member of Building One Community, an immigrant center serving the Stamford area, and she has been a board member of the CRS foundation for the past four years.
“In February, I will be going to El Salvador, where CRS is teaching farmers to revitalize their land and adapt to the region’s increasingly extreme and variable climate,” she said.
“This is one of various programs to keep them from leaving their country and becoming refugees.”
Catholic Relief Services is a global humanitarian agency begun in 1943 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which provides assistance to more than 130 million people in 114 countries.
Hanley says that she is filled with hope when she sees the work CRS is doing. “When you bring education to a country like Afghanistan that has so little, you are bringing stability,” she said. “And this is what the Gospel says we should be doing.”
(For further information, go to https://www.CRS.org.)