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CRS opens new chapter in Western New York

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Catholic Relief Services, which carries out the commitment of the United States bishops to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas, has branched out to incorporate diocesan and parish branches into its mission. The Diocese of Buffalo has joined with its own chapter of a dozen or so people who will incorporate the two feet of justice to foster charity and change across the globe.

As communities of people committed to serving the poor and ending global poverty, these chapters will take action that contributes to CRS’ mission to create transformational change for our global human family. Members work to address the systemic causes of global poverty through advocacy, by developing relationships with their members of Congress, visiting their representatives’ offices, and writing letters to the editor and op-eds to raise the profile of pivotal issues like forced migration and malnutrition. They will also support the immediate needs of around the world through collections.

CRS has had a presence in the diocese for six years through the work of Deacon Don Weigel, who has served as a global fellow and diocesan director to speak on behalf of the organization throughout the diocese. 

“Catholic Relief Services as an organization is allowing chapters to become what they want to be; define the way they want to support their efforts,” explained Deacon Jerry Hodson, who co-chairs the chapter with Kelly Ann Kowalski. “So, it’s not set in stone. It’s nice that way. We can determine what we want to do.”

Their work revolves around two areas. One is raising funds locally for the global efforts of CRS. Second is advocating for legislative actions being made by the government, mostly on a national level, to support relief services around the world.

With a plan to work on one bill a year, the current concern is the Global Child Thrive Act. The bill supports proper early development to orphans and vulnerable children in developing countries.

“It doesn’t involve spending more money, it just involves paying attention in any relief services that were doing abroad, paying attention to the children, getting them these kinds of services that make such a huge impact on them being able to thrive, to have a successful life, so that later they do not need as much help in other areas, like hunger and employment and housing,” explained Deacon Hodson.

They have already seen success in getting Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to agree to it, and are now trying to form a relationship with Congressman Chris Jacobs.

Co-chair Kelly Ann Kowalski, has spent 20 years with the Network of Religious Communities’ Food for All program, so the work CRS is close to her heart. Bringing charity and advocacy together to evoke real change is important to her.

“You can’t have charity without advocacy because we’re just going to be doing the same thing over and over again and nothing will change, then we will lose hope,” she said. “With advocacy, you can actually see change and keep making positive things happen.”

The members of the chapter meet once a month with CRS to hear guest speakers from across the country and to hear about project opportunities. Then the individual chapters get together to exchange ideas and decide what they want to pursue.

“Catholic Relief Services does some absolutely amazing things around the world,” said Deacon Hodson. “For a person who is interested in those types of efforts, how do you make a difference across the world? This is a great way to do that. To be attached to such a wonderful organization that does great things, that is really great about the money that they raise. A high percentage of it actually goes to helping people. Also, everything they do follows the beliefs of the Catholic Church. So, for me, I can know that everything I’m doing in support of that will also be supporting our faith and the principals we believe in in any project they do around the world.”

The chapter hopes to bring Project Rice Bowl to the Buffalo Diocese. Rice Bowl is the Lenten program of Catholic Relief Services. Through CRS Rice Bowl, faith communities in dioceses throughout the United States put their faith into action through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Lenten alms donated through Rice Bowl support the work of CRS in more than 100 different countries each year. Twenty-five percent of donations to CRS Rice Bowl stay in the local diocese, supporting hunger and poverty alleviation efforts. Since its inception in 1975, the program has raised nearly $300 million.

“I think Covid has shown us that we’re all connected. What goes on across the world definitely affects us. So, if we have healthy children in 100 different developing countries, it’s going to affect us. They’re going to be better people, healthier people. It’s going to make the world better,” said Kowalski.

Deacon Weigel will now be an advisor and a source of reference and assistance to the new chapter.

“I participate in all of the chapter meetings, but I purposely stepped back from taking a leadership role in the chapter so that other people could step up and be leaders within the chapter,” he explained.

His time with CRS has helped show Deacon Weigel how truly universal the Catholic Church is and meant to be.

“It has given me the opportunity to really more fully understand the Church’s mission because we sometimes get wrapped up in the things that we see around us, either just in our own parish or just in our own diocese, and we sometimes forget that the reason we are a Catholic church is because we are universal and we are all throughout the world,” he said. “So, our mission is to people who are all throughout the world and in this case, our mission is to those who are most vulnerable outside the borders of the United States.”

Anyone who is interested in joining the Buffalo Diocese chapter of CRS can contact Kelly Ann Kowalski at 716-830-4981, Deacon Jerry Hodson at Jeremyhodson@gmail.com, or visit The Buffalo Diocese Chapter of Catholic Relief Services on Facebook.

Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), speaks about his passion for leading the Global Child Thrive Act during a Zoom call with members of the Buffalo Chapter of Catholic Relief Services. Photo courtesy of CRS Buffalo Chapter.

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