GHANA—Thomas Awiapo is one of the many success stories for Catholic Relief Services.
He was only 10 when both his parents died. He and his three brothers found themselves orphaned, left alone to fight for survival. They constantly searched for food and water, but most days, there wasn’t any.
“We cried for food,” Awiapo said in an interview. “We went to bed hungry. We couldn’t sleep we were so hungry.”
Two of his brothers did not make it. Awiapo said the youngest one, so small and skinny, died in his arms. That is an experience that has never left his mind.
His older brother ran off, and Awiapo lived alone in his family’s mud hut, trying to find odd jobs to pay for even the smallest bit of food.
One day, the wonderful aroma of cooking lured him to a school run by CRS, and a new path was offered to the boy.
CRS fed the children daily, but they had to go to school. Awiapo said he wanted the meal, but did not like classwork and would run off if he could.
“I really didn’t go there because of school,” he said. “I went there because I discovered it’s a place that I could find a snack and a lunch every day.”
At first, school was not a good experience. Awiapo said after exams, the children with top grades would be applauded and given gifts, but those at the bottom were booed.
“That’s just what they did. I think I got a lot of boos,” he said.
Luckily, a teacher took Awiapo under his wing and one day the boy made high marks on his exam and received applause for the first time.
“I learned I could do it,” he said. “I transcended from just wanting a snack to a personal liking for school.”
Things were looking up, but the youth was still adrift spiritually. He missed his parents and at times was angry, with lots of questions for God.
During that time, a missionary priest saw Awiapo walking down the dirt road, dressed in cardboard to keep the sun from burning him. The priest gave the boy shoes and clothes from the mission.
Later, the priest saw Awiapo again, walking barefoot, and asked where his shoes were. Awiapo explained that he was saving the shoes for special days, so the priest gave him another pair for daily use.
Awiapo said he was drawn to the mission house because it was a nice clean place, full of love. Nobody at the Catholic school or the mission told him to become a Christian, he said, it was just a natural process.
He came to realize that God has a plan, and that God sent many people into his life to serve as parents.
“When I cried for parents, I’m sure God cried with me,” he said.
Awiapo said he moved on to the Catholic high school in Ghana and then spent six years in seminary before realizing that was not the gift God had in mind for him.
Now he is married with four children and works for CRS showing visitors the reality of life in Ghana, where they still struggle daily to find enough food and clean water.
“Nothing can beat coming and seeing and feeling and touching for yourself,” Awiapo said. “Everyone goes home very different.”
Also, each year during Lent Awiapo tours the United States, sharing his story and asking people to help others like him through Operation Rice Bowl.
“They call it a rice bowl, but for me it’s the gospel of love,” he said.
Spending 69 days in America always stirs mixed emotions in the man who was once on the brink of starvation. He loves the people and their generosity, but is always saddened by the wasted food.
“I see so much good food that goes in [dumpsters] to be thrown away as garbage, and you cry,” he said. “And it brings me straight back to my childhood when my brothers had to die because of hunger.”
Awiapo was blessed to escape that fate, and is doing his part to prevent other boys and girls from starving.
“Sometimes just a little kindness can change the world,” he said.