They’re quietly transforming the lives of the world’s poor, working with incarcerated women and their children in New York, serving the Dalit caste living in the slums of India and trying to educate Bangkok’s neediest children.
In October these Opus Prize finalists will be in Spokane to interact with Gonzaga University students, to visit with the Spokane community and to be recognized for their faith-based entrepreneurial work. Two of the finalists will receive $100,000 and one will be awarded $1 million to continue his or her humanitarian efforts.
A committee spearheaded by Gonzaga spent almost two years reviewing more than 25 nominees. The three finalists were announced last week.
- Sister Tesa Fitzgerald of Hour Children in Queens, New York;
- Gollapalli Israel, of the Janodayam Social Education Centre in Chennai, India;
- The Rev. Joseph Maier, of the Mercy Centre Human Development Foundation in Bangkok, Thailand
“These are unsung heroes we know are doing good work,” said Michael B. Herzog, chair of Gonzaga’s Opus Prize Steering Committee. “They are undaunted by tough, seemingly intractable social problems. They are entrepreneurial in their response. They embody the power of faith committed to justice. And they are inspirational role models for our students and our community. We can’t wait to welcome them to Spokane.”
Fitzgerald, a Sister of St. Joseph, began working with incarcerated women and their children in New York in 1985. In 1995 she created Hour Children, named to acknowledge the hour of a mother’s arrest, the hour of her visit, the hour of her release — all hours Fitzgerald felt shaped the life of a child with an incarcerated mother.
Hour Children’s first house, in Long Island City, became a place where mothers could reunite with their children. Now the organization oversees three apartment buildings, three thrift stores, a day care, an after-school program, a job training program, a group home for women and children, a food pantry, a mentoring program and three communal homes. Hour Children also continues to work with women in prison during their incarceration.
Hour Children’s recidivism rate is approximately 3 percent, compared to New York State’s reported 39 percent, and out of the hundreds of families Hour Children has worked with, only child has followed their mother to prison.
Israel, a Baptist minister,runs the Janodayam Social Education Centre in Chennai, India. The organizations goal is to change the lives of the outcasts, or Dalits, of Indian society. Although the caste system has been abolished in India, Israel — who was born to a Dalit family — knows the system is still engrained in Indian culture.
He works in Chennai’s 132 slums by holding face-to-face meetings, assembling the poor to articulate needs and demands and negotiate with the government, and monitor the government’s response.
TAAMS, a subsidiary of Janodayam created in 1999, works to educate, empower, organize and unite slum communities to fight for their rights. The organization’s efforts has led to formation of approximately 300 women’s micro-finance and self-help groups.
Israel has also created relationships with local universities and has helped more than 900 young adults from scavenger families earn degrees.
Maier is an American-born missionary and a Redemptorist priest who has spent the past 45 years working in the slums of Bangkok encouraging children to go to school.
“If you don’t have any shoes to wear or something to eat in the morning…go to school.”
“If your house burns down and there’s nowhere for you to sleep…go to school.”
Those who know Maier, known as “Father Joe” report that “go to school” is his mantra, no matter what.
He runs Mercy Centre Human Development Foundation, which he co-founded in 1973 Sr. Marie Chantavardom, 84. Together they managed 23 kindergartens where more than 3,000 kids learn how to read and write annually. They also run a special school for street children, which provide scholarships the areas poorest. Mercy Centre recently formed a federation with the Department of Education, local politicians and village leaders and interfaith leaders to provide education for 500 sea gypsy children.
The organization also works with local police to keep children away from traffickers, have built more than 10,000 houses in the slums, established a women’s credit union and provides emergency relief, including AIDS hospice care.
Francis Chau, a senior at Gonzaga, served on the steering committee and traveled to Thailand to meet with Maier.
“He knew everyone by name, he truly walked hand-in-hand with the poor,” she said. “You could see that in the way he interacted with people.”
She said it was evident Maier’s happiness came from the work he did, which she said has inspired her to work for Teach for America after she graduates.
“I’m thinking of how I will teach my students because of something Fr. Joe said that really tugged at me. I’m going to learn the language of my students so they don’t feel ashamed of where they come from,” she said.
The three finalists will be recognized at an Opus Awards Cremony and Community Reception at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets are free and the general public, and students, are invited. The finalists will also spend at lot of time working with students at the Gonzaga campus.
Don Neureuther, executive director of the Opus Prize Foundation, said it’s a great opportunity for students, and the general Spokane community, to meet these individuals.
“They may say ‘I’m not as holy as that person and I’m certainly not as experienced, but there are things I can do in my own life, part time or full time, that can change the world’,” he said.
Neureuther said the finalists are successful because of their drive and passion and hopes the community will be inspired by hearing their stories first-hand.
“It’s worth people’s time to meet people like this,” he said.
- Community Panel Discussion, 7 p.m., Oct. 14, Gonzaga’s Cataldo Hall Globe Room
- Interfaith Service, 5 p.m., Oct. 15, Gonzaga’s University Chapel
Tracy Simmons is an award-winning journalist specializing in religion reporting and digital entrepreneurship. In her approximate 20 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas, Connecticut and Washington. She is the executive director of SpokaneFāVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Washington. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and national publications. She is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of Journalism at Washington State University.