The NEWS with Tim O'Callaghan

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thomas Awiapo: Search for food led to a new life

This first published February 14, 2008 in the Henderson Home News, a Community Newspapers of Nevada publication.

In my advocacy work to assist the marginalized in our world, I’m often blessed with the presence of wonderful people. Once in a while, an opportunity will arise where my family gets to enjoy the grace of those less fortunate than ourselves.

There is man from Ghana in West Africa who has touched our family in many ways not only collectively but on a couple of individual occasions. Thomas Awiapo first left an extraordinary impression on our oldest daughter, Brenna, during his first visit to Las Vegas three years ago while talking to a group of Bishop Gorman High School students.
Brenna came home from school and told us about the visitor from West Africa and how he overcame great odds to not only survive being orphaned but to eventually become educated and is now giving back to society.

Within a few weeks I would unknowingly be enriched by the story of Thomas, told by him to a group of Catholic Social Action advocates from around the country in Washington, D.C.
He spends several months of the year on a speaking tour around the United States addressing mostly Catholic parishes and schools on behalf of Catholic Relief Services, raising awareness of the millions of dollars collected in the U.S. through the Lenten program Operation Rice Bowl and how this money is used around the world to break the chains of poverty.

Thomas was the second of four boys born to a couple in a small village in the isolated northern lands of Ghana, where the family barely eeked out an existence living in a mud hut. Within a year of each other, his parents became sick and died, leaving the four boys orphaned to fend for themselves.

Faced with starvation, the boys did whatever they could to survive, often fighting over a small bowl of food, which wasn’t enough. Thomas would eventually see his two younger brothers die from starvation. Later, he would be abandoned by his older brother, who said he couldn’t stay in the village any longer because there was too much misery. One morning when Thomas awoke, his brother had disappeared never to be seen again.

He would have faced certain death with no one left to help him, until a Good Samaritan came along help him. The Good Samaritan was not a single person but Catholic Relief Services, which built a school in the village. Thomas had no interest in going to school — no one in his family had ever gone to school. He needed to find food every day to sustain his existence, and this couldn’t possibly be found in schools.

Well, he was mistaken. He would soon learn that food could be obtained from school in the form of a small snack in the morning and a little lunch later in the day. The food was provided by a program funded by Operation Rice Bowl.

Every Lent when U.S. Catholics fast on Fridays, Rice Bowl encourages them to take the money saved through fasting, place it in a bowl, then donate it to the program on the last Sunday of Lent. Last year Operation Rice Bowl raised $10 million that helped curb hunger around the world.

Thomas would show up to the school, get a snack then sneak away from school. The teachers figured this out, and tricked him and others into going to school by withholding the snack until after the lesson.

“They held me hostage” he said, “tricking me into going to school.”

Eventually, Thomas would get an education, then an advanced education in the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of California, Hayward. He returned to Ghana to, in his words, “continue the practice of tricking children with a little snack to go to schools” knowing that education is the best tool for breaking the chains of poverty.

Last week, we hosted Thomas in our home during his visit to Nevada, where we had the opportunity to be touched personally by him. During Thomas’ previous visits to Las Vegas and many other U.S. cities, he rarely had the chance to see the communities he visits. This trip would be different, because we scheduled some down time during which we could show him a few sites.

Donna and I had the wonderful experience of seeing the Bellagio fountains through the eyes of a man who grew up without truly clean water. Together we watched as he marveled at the acres of crystal clear water on the Strip, and showed even more amazement as the fog rolled across the lake and the fountains burst to life with thunder and light.

As we walked through the mall in Planet Hollywood, Thomas noted the beauty of the evening sky, how it appeared so close you could touch it. I must admit being a little confused until I realized he thought the ceiling was really the sky. This is cause for pause, because we have become so accustomed to these facades that we don’t notice them anymore. This experience through Thomas’ eye whirled me back in time to when the Forum Shops first opened at Caesars Palace, to my own wonderment of the sky within the sky. How jaded we have become, our senses numb to ever-changing technology.

Thomas spoke of growing up without electricity, how excited they were when the moon shined full, lighting the village so they could dance and drum into the dawn. Having experienced the darkness of Africa last September, I recalled listening to the drums and singing, how the stars hung so low you could almost touch them.

With that in mind, we thought it would be appropriate to show him Hoover Dam, where electricity begins for much of the Southwest.

As you probably well know, a trip to Hoover Dam isn’t complete without stopping at the marina to feed the fish. While he and Donna strolled the dock, I ducked into the store for a bag of popcorn. The rest is history if you have ever experienced the feeding frenzy of giant carp.

However, Thomas was even more frenzied watching the last quarter of the Super Bowl after I explained the game. He rooted relentlessly for the underdogs, his new team, the New York Giants. He understands being the underdog. I think that’s why he asked me before the game started, “Who is the underdog?” then said, “That’s who I will cheer for.”

Even observing Thomas watch his first Super Bowl brought more excitement than the game itself.

Tim O’Callaghan, co-publisher of the News, can be reached at 990-2656 or tim.oc@vegas.com.