Helping Hands events are a great way for families to send direct assistance to needy families overseas. Here’s how this high-energy, joyful ministry got going in one parish, and how your family can join the movement.
by Cindy Coleman
You may be most familiar with Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas aid agency of U.S. Catholics, for the CRS Rice Bowls that your family fills with change every Lent. But CRS is so much more. (Check out this 53 second video CRS in 75 words.) For the last two years on Mother’s Day my parish, Mary, Mother of the Redeemer in North Wales, Pennsylvania, has hosted a CRS Helping Hands event to pack meals to send to Burkina Faso, a country in Africa where there is not enough food to feed all who are hungry.
Helping Hands helps families connect with families around the world. In this way, we “encounter” (as Pope Francis often says) those in the world who need our help. Helping Hands is a service project that can engage all members of your family in a work of mercy; even the littlest can get involved.
Encounting the World’s Most Vulnerable, Living Our Eucharistic Call
Just over a year ago, one of our parish members, JeriBeth Subers, volunteered to be a CRS parish ambassador. As part of this she organized multiple spiritual and service activities to help us encounter the world’s most vulnerable and to support CRS in meeting their needs.
Building on our very strong parish support for CRS Rice Bowl, she added educating the children in both our parish school and religious education program about CRS and giving each child a rice bowl. She organized a “prayer walk” on multiple nights for parish with a separate “prayer walk” session as part of a CYO event. This Advent there was both a prayer vigil focusing on refugees and migrants and an ethical trade sale to support artisans in vulnerable parts of the world.
Our CRS parish events focused on prayer and increasing our awareness about global hunger. We always are reminded that we are living out our eucharistic call to help our brothers and sisters secure the help they need now and to build healthy futures. Our biggest parish CRS efforts have been the Helping Hands events.
Helping Hands Event: Prayer, Service, Families, Learning and Fun
We begin with prayer reminding us why we are coming together. Then we don our (oh-so-fashionable) red hairnets and clean our hands. Using our parish school gym as the venue, volunteers of all ages packed more than 15,000 meals.
The meals are composed of rice, dehydrated soy, dehydrated vegetables and a vitamin and mineral packet, designed to be the most nutritious, easiest-to-prepare meals possible. According to CRS: “Meals are delivered to 27 church-run centers serving vulnerable people across Burkina Faso. The centers serve the elderly, the sick and girls fleeing forced marriage. Burkina Faso suffers from cyclical droughts and flooding. Most people in Burkina Faso depend on subsistence farming, making it difficult to grow food or earn a living during times of natural disaster. Currently, there is not enough food in the country to feed all who are hungry.”
We had more than 200 actively involved volunteers, from children to senior citizens. Meals are put together by teams gathered around a table with bins full of the dried meal components. Each person adds their ingredient to a funnel to fill the meal bag.
When they have five meals assembled they call for a “runner.” The youngest children were our runners, taking the assembled meals to the next station where they are weighed, sealed and packed into cartons for shipment.
Families Helping Families: A Great Time Doing a Good Thing
The event was high energy and the atmosphere joyful. Dance music played, people sang and there even was some dancing. As we reached each packing milestone, a gong rang and announced how many meals we had packed. The time went so fast! I think most of us were sad that in less than two hours from when we gathered, organizers announced we were finished. I can’t imagine have a better time while doing a good thing. For a better glimpse of the excitement, check out this video.
There was energy, fun, joy and love. Families gathered together on Mother’s Day to help other families. The first year we were concerned that families would be too busy to take part in the event on Mother’s Day—but we doubters were so wrong. Many mothers, including me, asked their families to take part in Helping Hands as their Mother’s Day gift. Knowing we were helping mothers and their children who are hungry was the best Mother’s Day present I could hope for from my son.
Christ’s Hands and Feet
Helping Hands events let volunteers directly take part in sending assistance to our brothers and sisters overseas doing more than donating money. We truly become Christ’s hands and feet, reminding us of how just a few hours of our time helps families across the world in a dramatic way. Two hours reaped more than 15,000 meals. It reminded me of Jesus’ miracle in the Bible in which he fed thousands off of only a little boy’s five barely loaves and two fish. One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” (Jn 6:8–9)
Helping Hands events can be hosted by individual parishes, groups of parishes, parish schools, religious education programs, confirmation classes, diocesan conventions, Catholic conferences and universities. My first experience with Helping Hands came during the World Meeting of Families 2015 in Philadelphia. I can’t encourage you enough to consider bringing this inspirational event to your parish or other group.
Today, nearly one in nine people in the world do not get enough food to lead healthy and active lives. Hunger and malnutrition are the greatest risks to health worldwide. Pope Francis has urged us, “Those who are nourished by the bread of Christ cannot remain indifferent to those who do not have their daily bread.” As a eucharistic people, we must confront this. A Helping Hands event lets us show love of our neighbor in a tangible way.
“The little ant says that what she has is not a lot, but enough to show to the person she loves.” — Burkinabe proverb (pronounced bər-KEE-nə-bay)
Teach Your Kids About Global Poverty and the Church
Here are resources to get your kids reading, thinking and talking about our connection to our brothers and sisters in need around the world.
- Here are seven ways kids can combat global poverty
- CRS works around the world to help communities recover from man-made and natural disasters. Read “Drop by Drop” by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, illustrated by Carrie Gowran, with your young children about a CRS water project in Burkina Faso. The story is about Sylvie, a girl from Burkina Faso, who is eager to go to school but cannot because she is tasked with the daily chore of fetching water for her family. But with the help of CRS, a well is drilled in her community, dramatically changing her life. Here are printable resources to accompany your reading. The resources also are appropriate to use with the companion book “Green Street Park” in which a group of young students work together to clean up their neighborhood park.
- Access this great resource for family catechesis about the dignity of the human person. The one-hour module includes a prayer, activity and focuses on human dignity through access to clean drinking water.
When thousands stood before you, hungry and tired
You first invited your disciples to feed them
And then you showed them how.
Show us how to play a part in your miracles.
Lord, we do not confront the hunger of 5,000 today
But the hunger of nations.
But we have many hands
And full hearts
And we have your Gospel to show us the way.
Bless not only our hands
But those of our hungry brothers and sisters.
The hands that plant, nurture and harvest
Working for a future that is free from hunger.
May all the members of your family eat until they are satisfied.
— Opening Prayer from CRS Helping Hands
Editor’s note: Gracewatch Media and Peanut Butter & Grace follow the direction of the U.S. Catholic bishops in their statement fully backing the work of Catholic Relief Services: “The statement confirms CRS’ fidelity to Church teaching and cautions the faithful about giving credence to recent attacks on the agency.” You can read the news release and the full statement here.
Cindy Coleman is a second-grade catechist and VBS leader at both her home parish of Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, Montgomeryville, Pa., and at St. Jude Parish in Chalfont, Pa. She is passionate about sharing our Catholic faith with children and their families. She also is co-coordinator of her parish’s Liturgy of the World with Children. Among her other parish activities, she is being trained as ReachMore group leader and leads the newly started WINE (Women in the New Evangelization) group. Cindy is married to Ron and the proud mother of Matthew, who recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame.