Megan Gilbert: Hello everyone. My name is Megan Gilbert. And welcome to Driving Mission Agility: Helping CRS Transform Lives.
This is the last webinar in a series where we have shown you CRS’s vision for the next 10 years. During this series we have talked about finding job opportunities for young people, transforming livelihoods, building safe homes in communities, and ensuring 1 million children live in safe and nurturing families, among many other topics as well.
Today, we’re going to talk about how your support makes all of that possible. We literally could not do this without you. The flexibility of that unrestricted support helps us partner and innovate in ways that maximize our impact and efficiency. And most importantly, it helps us reach our goal of transforming lives all over the world.
So, I am so excited that all of you are with us today because you are a key part of this vision. Our guests are Most Reverend Gerald F. Kicanas, Bishop Emeritus of Tucson, Arizona. He is also a CRS Foundation Board director. Charles Mulaney, CRS Foundation Board director. Chip will join us from Chicago. Donough Ryan is the country representative for CRS in Lebanon. He is based in Beirut. We also have Chin Nobleza, program manager for CRS in the Philippines. She will join us from Davao City.
Bishop Kicanas let’s start with you. It is such a joy to have you with us today. You have done so much work and have been so supportive of CRS over the years. I would love if you could just take a few minutes and share some of your thoughts and your experiences about the work that CRS does.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas: I’d be delighted, Megan. You know, I consider one of the greatest blessings of my life having had the opportunity to serve as the chair of the board of Catholic Relief Services and now on the Foundation Board. You know, Tony Blair, who was the former Prime minister of England, became a Catholic and someone asked him once, “Why did you become Catholic?” And he said, “You know, everywhere I went in the world, I saw the Catholic Church doing so much good. And I said, ‘I want to be part of that family.’” And one of the ways that the Catholic Church is present around the world, representing all of us here in the United States is Catholic Relief Services.
We do emergency work. As I experienced when I was in Haiti, after the earthquake that actually killed the archbishop, who fell from the balcony of his home, and the terrible devastation that took place in Port-au-Prince. And seeing CRS there, helping families to find some kind of shelter amidst the terrible tragedy that took place. Or in Nepal, where similarly an earthquake destroyed the homes of so many people, even in the most remote areas and CRS was there in those remote areas, helping to rebuild—to rebuild more safely.
I know Catholic Relief Services does things like helping farmers understand how better to plant their crops more efficiently, more productively, as took place in Vietnam, when I saw the rice fields and how CRS was helping those farmers even though they were a little reluctant to find a new way—a better way—of doing what they do.
And health care. I remember being in a clinic that served Muslim families, and they were so inspired by Catholic Relief Services that when we visited, they wanted to give us a gift. And what they gave us was a gift of the image of the Holy Family. What a beautiful way of showing us how grateful they were for what we were doing for them, even though they were a different religion and in a very different place. One of the most joyous moments was being in one of the child-friendly centers that CRS runs in Gaza, where the children have a chance to dance and sing and play in an environment where things are very desperate. Even though I wasn’t a very good dancer I must say the kids were fabulous. And all of these experiences: providing cash for families that are in need so that they have a sense of dignity, knowing how and what they need and how they can get that, and how well that’s done by Catholic Review Services.
So, all I can say is that this is an organization that matters—that makes a difference in a profound way throughout the world. And it has been a privilege, a joy, a blessing to see the great, great work that’s being done every day on our behalf through Catholic Relief Services.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much, Bishop Kicanas. What a beautiful way to get us started. I just love how you talked about the joy because amidst the heartache that we see all the time there is so much joy and I love that we can point that out, that we have that kind of joy.
Donough, you have worked in several different countries. You’ve worked in emergencies and you’ve worked in development. I’d love to hear from you. What does mission agility mean to you?
Donough Ryan: Thank you, Megan. Mission agility for us at CRS is really a function as I see it of who and indeed what we are. Here in Lebanon, or indeed in the Philippines, or many of the countries around the world, CRS is the colleagues and the partner organizations that provide the support and the services to vulnerable communities and participants and families. CRS is colleagues such as yourself, who provide support and technical oversight and guidance for the programming that’s happening in the countries.
The key part of what mission agility is for us is the supporters that we are very fortunate to have in the United States. To maybe dive a bit more into what I mean specifically by that, I point to the awful events of August 4th of last year here in Beirut.
There was the awful Beirut port explosion, which wrought really incredible devastation on the city. An explosion that … took the lives of 190 people. It affected 300,000 people and indeed left the health infrastructure in the entire country, not just the city of Beirut, completely overwhelmed. CRS was able and had the agility with our partners, to be able to have first responders on the ground within 60 minutes of that blast. As someone who experienced that and was within that two-kilometer blast radius, I’m still, frankly, astonished by our partners and our colleagues, their ability to do that.
We were in a position to provide mobile clinics, to provide first aid, medical and psychological support and, indeed, to provide ambulance services to the people worst effected of those by the explosion. As Bishop Kicanas made referenced to, there’s always those stories of hope even in the most dire circumstances. But one of them that really resonates with me and continues to resonate is that of our partner organization of CRS’ based down in Nabatieh, which is about an hour and a half south of Beirut. They provide ambulance services and first aid, first aid and on medical services. They had teams on the ground within two hours of that blast. And really what still resonates hugely with me is that by midnight that night, they had managed also to organize a blood drive in Nabatieh to the south and have delivered 200 units of blood to the hospitals and clinics of Beirut.
And our ability to respond so quickly and to respond with the support of eight different partner organizations that night is a function of that core support that we have from our donors in the United States.
Megan Gilbert: What’s just so astounding to me is that in so many instances, these people who are working and helping others have also been personally affected by this blast. But they still respond. They work because people need them. Donough, you were talking about our partnerships and how key they are. Just like our supporters, we couldn’t do our work the way we do it without our partners. So, how does that flexibility impact the way we work with partners?
Donough Ryan: An excellent question, Megan. I think the flexibility and agility and the gift of having those resources available to us is central to how we work with partners.
CRS takes a long-term view and builds the relationship, builds the capacity and builds those systems and that support to be able to respond and having core funds is a key component of that. The principle behind that as well is a localized response that draws on local solutions and that involve local organizations and indeed local communities. It is investing in local communities and local organizations and building that ability to be able to respond.
Mission Agility is almost a byproduct of the centrality of Catholic social teaching and how we work. It is at the very core of what we do. And by that I mean, if you look at some of the work that we’re doing in the Beqaa Valley here in Lebanon and the work in providing education supports to Syrian refugee children, working in partnership with the Good Shepherd Sisters, it is about … protecting and upholding and doing our part in upholding human dignity and indeed equality.
And one of the things that continually strikes me when I have the fortune and opportunity to visit is the principle of solidarity. So that is a central component of how CRS seeks to live Catholic social teaching.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much for sharing that, Donough. I’d like to turn now to Chin. Chin, the Philippines is a particularly good example of what we can do with private funds, and one of the reasons for that is that it is prone to emergencies.
Chin Nobleza: That’s right, Megan. Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. We have typhoons, flash floods, we experience earthquakes and even conflict.
Thankfully, CRS has been a constant in these times of challenges. CRS has been here in the last 76 years providing really relevant humanitarian support, with a partnership of Caritas, the Diocese and network and the local partners.
So, when I started in CRS just a few months, I was immediately deployed in response to the Typhoon Bopha. And we had to go through really far villages, and it’s quite challenging because we had to clear debris to get to that place. And I saw how the private funding—the readily available resources—it made us rapidly respond to the needs of the people there. So, these rapid responses became building blocks of recovery and development. And as there was continuity in the support in the communities as they try to build resilience.
Megan Gilbert: We really want to build that resilience because we know another disaster is going to come. So we want people to be able to respond better to those disasters. So, Chin, what are some of the examples of the development work that we have done in the Philippines?
Chin Nobleza: If you recall Typhoon Haiyan eight years ago, it was one of the most devastating typhoons we have experienced here in the Philippines. The village of Anibong, it was the worst- hit village because they were very close to the coast. And these families now, after eight years, are living in a very wonderful permanent community we call Dreamville. Yeah. So, from the devastation to transitional shelters, we have built with them very beautiful permanent houses, a permanent community for the 900 families.
So, I was in a meeting a few weeks back with a council woman of the city. And she mentioned that Dreamville has been one of the best resettlement housing projects they have in the city. And it has become a model, a benchmark for even government resettlement or housing projects. They look up to this because of the integrated service facility that has been provided. It’s very colorful and it’s well-placed. Our teams had interactions with one of their residents, Natalie, and her husband. So, when they transferred in Dreamville, they were very happy because there was already electricity, water connection was installed, and they stayed there in a happier place than they were before in that Anibong place where there was really massive devastation.
Some of the factors that made this possible is because of the really close coordination and partnership with the local government. And as Donough mentioned, that partnership is really key to scale and ensure continuity and sustainability of what we are doing in this place.
Megan Gilbert: I love how we call it Dreamville. It’s such an appropriate name. Like you said, there’s bright colors and the people sitting outside, you know, that’s what you want in a community to be able to sit outside your house, talk to people as, as they go by. So … it is …
Chin Nobleza: Dream come true for them.
Megan Gilbert: Exactly, exactly. It’s a dream … come true. But we talked about this … a little bit before about the Philippines being prone to disasters. And it’s not just natural disasters, there’s also conflict as well. And when I think about how CRS responds to conflict all over the world, and the recovery from that conflict, which often can take years. And that was the case in the Philippines with the … Marawi siege that happened in 2017.
Chin Nobleza: The Marawi siege was one huge city, and there was a conflict between the terrorist group and then there was airstrikes. So, it just really total devastation of the city, and that is four years ago. So, we did respond there immediately. And again, because of the private funding, we were able to go into that area and provide the needed support. After that, we did recovery project. And an example is that we supported rebuilding homes.
Nariah, one of the residents in Ground Zero, and because of our support, she was able to go back and rebuild her house. It was a very emotional moment for her when she transferred with her family because she said it was three years she was living with her relatives and being displaced for three years, and now she is back trying to slowly rebuild her life in this house that was damaged because of the airstrikes. And through CRS, she was able to do that. And it’s not just only rebuilding houses. We also provided livelihood, restoration support.
Megan Gilbert: Chin, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us in one way or another. And it’s been really challenging, I’m sure, for the work that you do. So how have you had to adjust?
Chin Nobleza: Months before the pandemic, the teams were very busy responding to the earthquake in north Cotabato. And then, when the pandemic came, we were cognizant of the need to really reduce the risk of transmission. So, we had to immediately pivot our strategies to integrate safety and preventive measures. They’re living in tents, and now we have provided hand-washing stations. We’ve disseminated risk prevention messages. So, these were the overlays on top of the usual emergency responses that we provided. We provided debit cards where the households can do their own shopping for household items that they lost because of the earthquake. And this was done in well-curated shopping events, following safety protocols.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much, Chin, for sharing all of your experiences and your stories. I would like now to turn to a Foundation Board director, Chip Mulaney. Chip, I have said many times that when you get to see the work of CRS in person, it can be transformative for anyone who is able to do that. You have done it several times. And when you’re thinking about those trips and you think about Mission Agility, what comes to mind?
Chip Mulaney: If you’re interested in international disaster relief and social work, CRS is the gold standard. I’ve enjoyed site visits, both seeing emergency relief services and ongoing social programs. So, I’d like to talk about one of each.
So, the emergency relief program was in Serbia in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis. So, in the height of the Syrian civil war, hundreds of thousands—millions—of refugees are leaving Syria, going to Turkey, Greece, Macedonia. Then they come into the first camp in Serbia. There are three camps, each run by CRS and their local affiliates. They go to Belgrade, the second camp in Serbia, where we work, and then further north, they go up to a camp on the border with Hungary. And these refugees, you know, they’re obviously moving with all they can carry and that’s it.
And I learned that … they used the local Serbians. They went to the graduate schools to find graduate students that spoke Farsi so they could communicate effectively with the refugees as well as providing medical care. And then I learned that because a Muslim woman will not be examined by a male doctor. They needed female medical help to effectively deal with the Syrian women that they’re involved in.
One translator that I was speaking to, I said, “How long have you been doing this? She said, “Three years.” And I said, “How did you come to do it?” She said, “Well, they came to grad school and recruited me for a year, and I spent a year. And then I said, I can’t stop doing this. It’s too important.” And she said, “I’ve been doing it for three years, and I’ll probably be doing it for another, another several years,” which was really quite inspiring.
We went to a lunch and one of the guests was the interior minister of the government of Serbia. And I said, “Uh, it’s very nice of you to join us. You’re obviously very busy. Why are you here?” And he said, “Well, I wanted to thank you directly as a representative of Catholic Relief Services, for what it is that CRS is doing in Serbia. We couldn’t do anything with the quality we’re doing it, if it weren’t for CRS and the talent and skill and background that they bring to this exercise.”
So, that was the emergency site visit.
Of an ongoing social program nature, let’s turn to Vietnam. And, you know, Vietnam is a communist country. There’s a lot of capitalism vibration to it, but it’s a communist government. They’re not particularly interested in Catholic social teaching, but they’re interested in what Catholic social teaching does. We headed out into the countryside and the local Vietnamese woman, part of the CRS team, was telling us where we were going. And I said to her, “How long have you been working for CRS?” She said, “Fifteen years.” She said, “But it took five years before they’d hire me. So, I had to keep trying, and they finally accepted me 15 years ago. And I’ve been working with them ever since.” And then she said, we’re gonna visit a farmhouse with a couple, and they have a young boy, now five and a half years old.
And for the longest time he wouldn’t speak. He was physically healthy, but his parents just couldn’t, you know, deal with him, relate to him. They were very worried about him. So, finally, CRS social worker got someone into the house to give him a medical evaluation. It turns out he’s close to being deaf. So, they got him a hearing aid. And then got him a speech teacher. And he has had nine months, when we were visiting, he was in the nine months of speech therapy, making very rapid progress.
It turns out he’s a very bright young boy. And he has progressed so rapidly that in two more months we were told he’d be mainstreamed right into the local schools, et cetera. And he’s gonna do a lot of good things in his life. So, it was quite inspiring.
Megan Gilbert: What I love about that is that it was a simple solution in a lot of ways. It wasn’t necessarily something that’s super complicated, but the impact it has and what a difference it’s going to make in his life and all the difference he’s going to make in other people’s lives is just so substantial. Chip, I would like to ask you another question. What do you think sets CRS apart from other organizations?
Chip Mulaney: Well, I think it’s the dedication of the staff. It’s a mission-driven, you know, Catholic-driven group of people with a very strong culture who are very aware of the need for what they’re doing and are very good at it.
You can imagine you’re in the middle of a refugee camp in Serbia. It’s a great place to not radiate confidence and give some sense of, “We have this under control,” but they do. They’re totally in charge of things. You have a sense they know what they’re doing and they’re executing things well, et cetera. It’s a sustained dedication to their work and they will work in various areas of the globe and then move to another area. We all need heroes in this world, and I’ve met several at CRS.
Megan Gilbert: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your stories, Chip. I have one last question for you, Donough. I’m sure you can relate to some of the things that Chip was saying. You have a wonderful staff in Lebanon. But I’m also curious to talk about the innovations that we’re able to do with unrestricted funding. Do you have some examples?
Donough Ryan: Well, one of the really impactful programs that we operate here is the support we provide in partnership with Caritas Lebanon to refugee children who have disabilities and their families. And that is a project that serves a group of people, a group of children, who are really the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. They’re already disadvantaged by their status as refugees in a, by definition, foreign country. But also, with the challenges that come with disabilities and … the support that is needed.
That project is and has been entirely funded through private donations and with our core and unrestricted funding. And is innovative in that the support that’s provided is really holistic. You know, it encompasses everything from training support to the children’s parents, to help them do the exercises that alleviate some of the symptoms that they might suffer from, some of the physical disabilities. It provides education and counseling support as well. It’s a program that fills a critical need, has adopted a really innovative approach in supporting the entire family and in seeking to equip the family better to support the children. And one that is only happening because of the core support that we received from our CRS colleagues in the United States, our donors.
Megan Gilbert: I know, it is amazing. I have met some of those families and they were saying that they got more support in Lebanon than they did in their home countries. I met a family whose five-year-old daughter never walked. And then within a few months she was walking. So, it really is a terrific example of the transformative work we can do.
Bishop Kicanas, if I can move to you for just one moment. I’m wondering if you have any reflections as you’ve listened to people share their stories about our work.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas: Oh, it’s been a very hopeful webinar and, you know, hope is the secret of the Christian life and the breath, which is absolutely necessary for the Church’s pastoral work. And clearly, CRS gives us hope. Not only because they’re doing great work, but because they elicit the cooperation and participation of others in the work that they do. Everywhere I went, the partners were key players in the work that CRS does. We learn from the local people. We appreciate and value … the local people, and we join in collaboration with the local people. And that makes a tremendous difference.
There are a number of people who see CRS as the best face of the Church. And I can see that in the presentations today, as I listened to Donough and Chin and Chip. How could you not be inspired and hopeful to see the good work that CRS is doing?
Megan Gilbert: I think those are the key words for today—hope, joy, looking forward to everything we can do because our supporters and others are just so dedicated.
Thank you so much, Bishop Kicanas, and also thanks to Chip, Donough and Chin for joining us for this discussion. And of course, thank you for listening and for your continued support and prayers. You really are an essential part of the work that we do.
Please visit GoFAR.crs.org for more information and stories on how you make a difference every day. Until next time.