PAWTUCKET — Putting coins and bills in a cardboard box may sound simple, but the annual Rice Bowl tradition has changed many lives around the world for almost 40 years.
Founded in 1975 by Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Lenten faith-in-action program for parishes, schools and families encourages Catholics to help others through praying, fasting and almsgiving.
According to CRS.org, 93 percent of the organization’s expenditures go directly to programs that benefit the poor overseas. While 75 percent of donations support CRS’ humanitarian relief programs in nearly 100 countries worldwide, 25 percent stays in the donor’s community to fight hunger and poverty alleviation efforts.
CRS recently announced that the Diocese of Providence was among the Top 10 dioceses in the country for raising money to aid those in need, placing number four in the nation from 2012-2013. The diocese raised $296,361.33.
And they’re raising more this year, with students in schools across the diocese, such as Bishop Keough High School in Pawtucket, and Bishop McVinney Catholic Elementary School in Providence, taking part in various initiatives like dress down days, raffles, and bake sales to collect funds to fill the rice bowls provided by CRS.
Students realize pinching pennies adds up: $10 buys two weeks of food for a family, $25 supplies drought-resistant seeds for a farmer, $50 affords clean water for more than 500 families, and $100 is enough to purchase school desks for 13 children.
“Even if you can put a penny in, that’s a penny more that they’ll have,” said Alexia Drohan, 16, a junior at Bishop Keough who has seen firsthand what assistance from abroad can do to help those experiencing great need in an impoverished area of the world.
She recently traveled to Nicaragua through Rustic Pathways, an organization that offers travel and service programs for students and families. “It’s one of the poorest countries in the world,” she added of the Central American nation.
Drohan’s classmate, Jenna Cabral, 17, also went to Nicaragua during the summer. She traveled via Broadreach, which arranges summer adventures and study abroad programs for middle school, high school and college students.
“When we went there, we painted a school cafeteria and they said, ‘this is where kids get their only meal of the day because some of them can’t afford to eat at home,’” said Cabral, who also helped with other community service initiatives. “Seeing how people live definitely makes me want to help even more. The people don’t have any health care, dentists – nothing. They can barely get food.”
Other juniors at Bishop Keough, including Noelle Curtis-Joseph, 17, Jailyn Gomes, 16, and Stephanie Jamie, 18, have been Catholic school students most of their lives. Through the years, the Rice Bowl initiative hasn’t changed, but their understanding of it has.
“As we progress through elementary school, middle school, and high school, this is the first time I’m really seeing an emphasis on how people live,” said Curtis-Joseph, noting that the CRS “Stories of Hope” articles and videos that showcase individuals and communities whose lives have been changed by Rice Bowl contributions have inspired her to give more. “It reminds you of what others don’t have and you need to be grateful for what you have.”
Gomes and Jamie agree.
“It hits you hard,” Gomes said, while Jamie spoke of how important it is to give to others. “Instead of using it for myself, I just put it in the Rice Bowl,” Jaime said of her spare change.
Principal Jeanne Leclerc, along with religion and history teacher William Woodruff, said they are impressed with students’ efforts. In the last two weeks, the students at the small high school have raised $56 via a raffle, and are also collecting items for the local needy.
“It’s Lent, so we’re asking them to sacrifice a little and give to those have less,” Leclerc said. That’s what it’s all about – being concerned for those who don’t have as much.”
Louis Hebert, principal of Bishop McVinney School in Providence, shared similar sentiments about his students. While members of the Principal Student Committee visit classrooms to encourage other students to donate, they also frequently hold food drives to benefit nearby St. Michael Church and fund food baskets for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. They recently collected 2,169 can goods for a food drive.
“These service projects are really good for the kids because they are thinking of others,” Hebert said. “If you look around, this is one of the neediest and poorest areas in the diocese. Even though we don’t have as much as some other people, I think they realize how lucky they are. That says something about the kids and parents. They want to help other people.”
For sixth-grader Eve Rodriguez, 11, as well as seventh-grader Aurelie Sylva, 12, the Rice Bowl signifies a dedication to God. Assisting strangers, they said, is what the faith is all about.
“We want to show our care for other nations,” Rodriguez said, with Sylva adding, “we’re in a small area of Providence, but we like to help out people all around the world. During Lent, you make sacrifices to help others.”
Eighth-graders Manny Urbaez, 13, Angeline Vega, 14, and Natalia Reyes, 14, feel the same. “You have to think about the less fortunate,” Urbeaz said.
His classmate, Joshua Milcette, 14, agrees. Milcette, whose family is from Haiti, said the Rice Bowl has made him reflect more and think about things he tends to take for granted.
“Your mom cooks something and you don’t feel like eating it, but some people have absolutely nothing to eat,” he said, also pointing out that while America has soup kitchens and food pantries for the homeless and poor, less fortunate countries don’t. “Every little thing that we do makes a difference, so we try our best to chip in as much as we can.”