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Gonzaga students see problems Opus Prize finalists address

As part of preparing to host the 2014 Opus Prize faith-based humanitarian award, seven Gonzaga University student vetters, chosen from 70 applicants and four faculty members, visited the three finalists in person.

The finalists are Sister Teresa “Tesa” Fitzgerald of Hour Children, Queens, New York; Gollapalli Israel, of the Janodayam Social Education Centre in Chennai, India, and the Rev. Joseph Maier, of the Mercy Centre Human Development Foundation in Bangkok, Thailand.

Among the student vetters were Meaghan Driscoll,who visited Hour Children, Aaron Danowski who visited Janodayam, and Allison Crha who visited Mercy Centre. They recently shared their experiences with The Fig Tree.


Sister Teresa Fitzgerald
Sr. Tesa Fitzgerald

Sr. Tesa Fitzgerald, a Sister of St. Joseph, directs Hour Children, a nonprofit in Queens that provides services to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children, reuniting families and rebuilding lives.

It is named for the hours that shape lives of children with mothers behind bars: the hour their mothers are arrested, the hour they visit their mothers in prison, and the hour of their release.

The program offers housing, education, transportation, day care, job training and employment assistance, and personal and addiction counseling. It builds hope among women who have had few reasons for hope.

More than 80 percent of the women have a childhood history of physical and sexual abuse; 82 percent are substance abusers, and the education of most ended after seventh-grade.

Hour Children seeks to stop the cycle of incarceration. While an average of 30 percent of female offenders relapse into criminal behavior and return to prison nationwide, the recidivism rate for Hour Children has been about 5 percent over 25 years.

Meaghan visited Hour Children during spring break 2014.

A third-year law student, she applied to be a vetter to form relationships and see how a world leader was addressing an issue that fit her own commitment to do public interest law to help vulnerable populations.

A 2006 graduate of Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, she majored in English and minored in philosophy at Seattle University, graduating in 2010.

Meaghan spent two years with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest in Aberdeen and Hoquiam working with the Northwest Justice Project, helping people know their legal rights. The second year she worked at St. Margaret’s Shelter in Spokane as a housing case manager for homeless families. St. Margaret’s offers a similar population similar services, she said.

Growing up Catholic, Meaghan said Jesuit education and principles are part of her approach and are how she hopes to live her life as a servant for the community.

Sister Teresa Fitzgerald and child

Sr. Tesa Fitzgerald with child

Visiting with Sr. Tesa a day and a half, she learned of the thrift store, child care, vocational direction and housing programs.

“Her incredible faith and tenacity drives her to find resources to meet the needs she sees,” she said.

The motto of Hour Children is: “Love makes the difference.” Meaghan believes love makes a difference for women in shelters.

Because the program does not rely on federal funding, staff are flexible in using resources to meet needs. For example, federal dollars are often tied to finite expectations, such as temporary housing for three months.

“Hour Children may provide one month of housing or six based on the person’s need,” she said.

“It has given me hope,” she said. “I am frustrated that our criminal justice system locks people up and then puts them out on the streets with no resources, contributing to recidivism.

“Hour Children addresses intergenerational poverty and incarceration,” she said.

Meaghan sees that the program has power, given the staggering odds against women, to prevent incarcerated mothers from becoming mothers of children who will be incarcerated.

Meaghan has organized a conference on “Introduction to Restorative Justice” from noon to 4:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 13, at Gonzaga School of Law’s Barbieri Courtroom.

For information, email

Gollapalli Israel
Gollapalli Israel

For 18 years, Gollapalli Israel has practiced his Baptist faith, working among the Dalit (Adi Andhra) caste—also known as the untouchables—in the slums of Chennai, India. With his college education, he could have pursued other professional opportunities. He chose to fight for justice and opportunities for his people.

Adi Andhras are among the poorest people on earth. While legislation abolished India’s caste system, centuries of stigma remain, and the oppressed caste remains at the bottom.

Traditionally, the only occupations open to them are considered impure: tanning leather, butchering, garbage collection and manual scavenging—cleaning human and animal excrement from latrines, streets and sewers.

Gollapalli leads the nonprofit Janodayam Social Education Centre, which promotes education, economic independence and awareness of existing rights for Adi Andhras in Chennai. Janodayam means “People Arise.”

Its work includes:

• Night schools and tutoring that help thousands of Dalit children pursue better education so they can compete with those in private schools, and technical courses to help them find living-wage jobs.

• A community network that empowers Dalit leaders from 132 local slums to advocate for the rights of 600,000 people and for government assistance by helping them organize and negotiate for basic rights.

• Groups of 15 to 20 women who gain a communal voice and access to a micro-loan program that has enabled 5,000 women to start small businesses.

Gollapalli has also developed partnerships with local universities. More than 900 young Dalit adults have earned undergraduate or graduate degrees, including 10 doctoral degrees.

Janodayam, Chennai, India
Woman with Janodayam speaks at gathering with Aaron Danowski and Gonzaga faculty member Peggy Sue Loroz.

Aaron, a sophomore from Portland, Ore., is a business major with minors in entrepreneurship and sociology.

“I thought the Opus Prize vetting trip would be a way to see the world, to visit a different place and to observe the progress of faith-based humanitarians who use entrepreneurial methods to solve the world’s toughest social problems,” he said.

From reading about social entrepreneurship, Aaron was fascinated by people using the business skills he was studying in school for something bigger.

During the week of May 19, he went to Chennai, a city of 9 million on the Southeast Coast of India to observe Gollapalli’s work with Janodayam.

“Traditionally in the slums, women are oppressed because they are to stay at home while men work, but men’s jobs do not pay well, and men have a high mortality rate, so Janodayam teaches women business skills and gives them a voice on such issues as domestic violence.

Gollapalli, 48, the son of a manual scavenger, put himself through college. The Jesuits who founded Janodayam recruited him to teach at the night school and eventually appointed him director.

“He is a role model who can relate to the people’s experiences,” Aaron said.

Janodayam has 40 employees working out of a four-room apartment. They have one computer to use to touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals.

“I had never seen the level of poverty I saw there. Nor had I seen the strength of character it takes to see such poverty and also see that something greater can arise out of it,” Aaron said.

“Gollapalli, who is Baptist in the 90 percent Hindu India, serves regardless of race or religion. Faith motivates him, but he does not promote his faith in the community to ensure Janodayam can represent all Adi Andhras,” said Aaron, who grew up in a Foursquare church in Beaverton, Ore., and has attended different churches in Spokane.

“I realize we are all God’s children and share the humanity of being made in God’s image,” he said. “Some of us are in college, paying up to $50,000 for an education, and some are in slums looking for a ray of hope. How do I make sense of my being where I am and their being where they are? Now that I am blessed with having seen, I want to give back. I want to work with organizations that create social change.”

This summer, Aaron was an intern with World Vision in Federal Way, a multibillion-dollar Christian NGO working in different countries.

“How do we use faith as a driver of the change we want to see in the world? How can we make a difference? I’m hooked,” Aaron said. “Now that I have seen, I can’t unsee. The experience has changed my perspectives.”


The Rev Father Joseph Maier
Fr. Joe Maier

In Thailand, the Rev. Joseph Maier, a Redemptorist priest born in Longview, Wash., co-founded in 1972 the Human Development Foundation Mercy Centre in Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok, home to more than 100,000 of the city’s poor.

He empowers the men, women and children with education. Mercy Centre manages 23 kindergartens for more than 3,000 children. It also operates schools for street children and secures scholarships for more than 1,000 children annually.

Other programs target complex social issues. Fr. Joe and his staff work with police to keep children out of the hands of human traffickers. They’ve built 10,000 homes, plus playgrounds and sports facilities. They established a women’s credit union to help women control their finances. They provide home care to 360 patients suffering from HIV/AIDS and related diseases. They also offer emergency relief.

He and his staff have built a successful NGO in Thailand starting with modest, practical solutions, and expanding implementation for greater impact. He has the respect and love of the poor, government officials, and the Buddhist monk and local imam who pray with him.

Allison, a senior nursing student at Gonzaga University from Seattle, applied to be a vetter because she is passionate about international medicine and international relations.

Alison Crha
Allison Crha plays with child at Mercy Center.

She spent a week this summer visiting Fr. Joe and saw how the center uses kindergarten education to change a community.

While Fr. Joe once taught, she said the center now trains local teachers so there are more kindergartens in and certified teachers from the slums. The community has taken over the work, making the program sustainable.

Now in his late 70s, Fr. Joe visits schools, says Mass and relates with the children.

In 2013, Allison also spent four weeks in Gonzaga University’s immersion program in Zambia.

In both settings, she found that people hunger to learn how to keep themselves healthy so they can live fuller, richer lives.

Fr. Joe has a home health team that works with people who have AIDS and works to prevent it.

“In Zambia, the ARV medicine was available, but few had food with which to take it. It is uncomfortable to take the medicine without food,” Allison said. “In Thailand, that is not the case. It’s more developed in terms of food, sanitation and water.”

She sees that people in every country have needs: “We have needs. Thailand has needs, and Zambia has needs.”

These experiences have allowed her to look at the U.S. health care issues.

“Here, few think about how our habits affect our health,” she said. “In other countries, the focus is on prevention.”

Allison was impressed how Fr. Joe reaches across religions with a Muslim imam and Buddhist monk to “find beauty in comparing their different religious beliefs and conflicts,” she said. “Their relationship is not just respect, but allows their differences to give them room to explore what they believe.

“It seems impossible that people in slums of Thailand are figuring out interreligious relationships. While we in the United States are more advanced in some ways, we have much to learn,” said Allison, a Lutheran who attended Catholic grade schools and high school.

“When I asked how he lives his faith, he said he just tries not to get in the way of God working through him. He is God’s hands and feet.”

She encourages people to move out of their comfort zones to see how others live.

“There is not one way to live our faith or serve Christ,” she said. “We need to use our passions and gifts to do God’s work.”

She will be an Opus speaker.

Copyright © September 2014 - The Fig Tree