EAST HARTFORD – Students at St. Christopher School gained some unusually vivid insight into life in Kenya and Catholic programs to improve life there, thanks to their parish’s deacon, who visited the East African country through a Catholic Relief Services Program.
Deacon Tom Breen, a CRS Global Fellows ambassador, talked to the children recently about the economy, geography and people of Kenya. He also told them about Catholic Relief Services’ programs that improve the lives of citizens in the country, where approximately 45 percent of the people live on less than $2 per day and 1.6 million are infected with HIV.
Deacon Breen is the only Global Fellows ambassador in Connecticut, and one of only 85 such ambassadors across the country. He has been a permanent deacon for 28 years and, while now assigned to St. Christopher Parish, has served in seven others.
“A global fellow is a priest or deacon who has committed himself to being available to be a spokesman for CRS. We’re expected to make CRS a priority in our lives and our preaching and [help] keep the message of CRS alive,” said Deacon Breen.
Through the Global Fellows program, established in 2004, Deacon Breen participated in a week-long immersion trip to Kenya in January and observed CRS programming in action. His experiences enable him to share first-hand knowledge as a representative of CRS.
In his school presentation, Deacon Breen described Kenya’s diverse geography with its Indian Ocean coastal areas, broad plains and numerous hills. The country has two of Africa’s tallest mountains, tropical and montane rainforests, and it borders Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. Students were delighted by photographs that he took of a variety of safari animals.
Through his travelogue, Deacon Breen contrasted the country’s bountiful and majestic beauty with its citizens’ widespread lack of basic necessities. He also described the devastating impact of HIV on the people of Kenya.
“Our purpose was to listen and learn,” said Deacon Breen.
“Although the people suffer from economic privation, they don’t really suffer with it; they just live with it,” he said.
Deacon Breen said he was with six other deacons and two priests on the immersion trip. All were “tremendously impressed by the dedication of all CRS staff and the work that they were doing” to assist Kenyans in improving their lives, he said.
“We went to western Kenya along the shores of Lake Victoria, which is the section of Kenya that was most ravaged by the AIDS epidemic,” said Deacon Breen. “We spoke with people who are recovering from AIDS who are victims but [through drug therapy] are living productive lives.”
In the Homa Bay area, where Deacon Breen spent most of his trip, HIV is a critical social and economic issue. CRS efforts in this region focus on initiatives that assist in the treatment of individuals infected with HIV, educate and protect orphaned children, and implement programs that propel families toward financial independence.
CRS helps to provide and monitor for AIDS victims antiretroviral drug therapies that are made available through the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, which was established during President George W. Bush’s administration. CRS also focuses efforts on AIDS prevention education, said Mikaele Sansone, clergy outreach manager for Catholic Relief Services.
In Kenya, approximately one million children have been orphaned when both parents died of HIV- related infections. CRS runs orphanages, like one that Deacon Breen visited, and helps to educate and protect these vulnerable children.
Many of the poorest families are single-parent families, the result of one spouse’s death from AIDS. A CRS program enables communities to work together to improve local economies and create opportunities for residents.
Deacon Breen talked about the program’s effectiveness, using as an example the story of a single mother whose husband died of an HIV-related infection, leaving his family without financial means. With a loan through the CRS program, she started a retail fish business. Profits from the sale of fish sustain her business and provide for her family.
Deacon Breen explained to students that “the good things CRS is doing in Kenya” are similar to what CRS is doing in 94 countries around the world.
“We Catholics in the United States, through CRS, are helping people to rebuild their lives,” he said.
Ms. Sansone said that the Global Fellows Program “helps Catholic communities answer the Gospel call to social justice. As deacons or retired priests, [the] ambassadors celebrate or assist in Masses and give homilies that highlight messages of social justice and encourage global solidarity.”
Deacon Breen has been a CRS Global Fellows ambassador for a year. He is bilingual and passionate about social justice and engaging Catholics in the mission of the church and CRS. Other ambassadors have visited CRS projects in other African countries, Latin America or Asia.
To invite Deacon Breen or a Global Fellows ambassador to speak to your parish, group or school, contact CRS at 410-951-7336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.