On November 30, Dr. Carolyn Woo, the CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), gave a lecture called “Working for a Better World: The Story of Catholic Relief Services and Carolyn Woo.” Catholic Relief Services is the official humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the U.S., and serves 85 million people in 101 countries. CRS was founded in 1943 to serve refugees and survivors of World War II. Catholic social teaching maintains a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, and the sacredness and dignity of the human person. The members of CRS see themselves as part of one human family, in solidarity with all who need their help.
Carolyn Woo grew up in Hong Kong, the daughter of immigrants who first left China to escape bombing by the Japanese, and then a second time when they sensed the new Communist government would be hostile to Catholics. Woo whose parents did not speak English, learned from an order of nuns who inspired her with their faith and devotion and provided her with a good education. She received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Purdue University, and was the dean of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.
Woo explained that the work of CRS is inspired by the idea that God wants us to improve the conditions of his people on earth, to “collect the harvest which He sends.” The organization simply “goes wherever there is a problem,” and is always adapting to the current needs of people all around the world, whether they be refugees of war, Ebola victims, or victims of natural disasters. CRS not only seeks to offer help in the short-term, but focuses on long-term community development. They work with the local church in whatever community they are in and establish relationships with those they are helping. Their goal is not only to give men fish for a day, but teach them how to fish so they can eat for a lifetime, so to speak, through education and improvements in health care and agriculture. Currently, they are committed to anticipating the effects of global warming on the communities they work with, while pushing for policies that reduce carbon emissions. Over the last twenty years they have provided access to safe clean drinking to two billion people, which is crucial to human health and safety as conflict over water access is common in areas where it is scarce. Since water collection is primarily the job of women and children, limited access means minimal time for them to receive education. Another large scale project the organization is involved in is providing drugs that prohibit the transmission on HIV from a mother to her baby, which they have distributed to over 700,000 people so far.
CRS also focuses on information technology. Woo explained that farmers can use mobile phones to access the latest market information to help them get a fair price for their produce, pregnant women can access information crucial for a healthy pregnancy, and women, who typically do not have their own bank accounts, can engage in business with electronic money transfer. Technology facilitates communication and education which helps communities. Their “Evaluate” initiative does just this, with applications that customize information for regional language variations, GPS, and data driven planning and mapping. Many of the applications are developed by locals. In conclusion, Woo said “when you serve God you have to bring the most creative ideas”.
As the CEO of an organization that sees the worst suffering in the world, Woo emphasized the importance of prayer in working amidst all the darkness, violence, and suffering in the world to remind her that God is always present and that those who are suffering are part of our family. She summed up her experience with CRS as “the vivid presence of God in the world.”