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The Opus Prize is a faith-based humanitarian award that recognizes unsung heroes who are combating the world’s most persistent social problems. (learn more at gonzaga.edu/opus-prize)

The Opus Prize awards $1 million to a faith-based, humanitarian entrepreneur each year. Two finalists receive $100,000 each. These unsung heroes offer inspiration for our students and the Gonzaga community.

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Teach India’s untouchables how to fish

Mr. Gollapalli Israel
Janodayam Social Education Centre
Chennai, India

The Challenge:
In the absence of modern sewers, some areas of India depend on Dalits. In the West, we know them as “untouchables.” The Dalit people survive by working “impure” jobs. The lowest of these is “manual scavenging.” This means cleaning up excrement and garbage. Small pieces of sheet metal, handbrooms and baskets are their everyday tools. When Dalit men dive into manholes to clear obstructed drains, they use rope, small buckets and their bare hands.

The Opus Finalist:
Gollapalli Israel was born into the Dalit (DOLL-it) caste. He is a Baptist and the son of a scavenger himself. He directs the Janodayam Social Education Centre, which was founded 25 years ago by two Jesuits at Chennai’s Loyola College. Mr. Israel has run the organization for 18 years, working to raise the human dignity of the Dalit people. Janodayam’s work includes three main programs:

  • Janodayam’s night schools offer tutoring and have helped thousands of Dalit children succeed in public school. Education is the way out for untouchables, because Dalits who graduate from college or gain advanced degrees can seek any employment.
  • The TAAMS advocacy network empowers Dalit leaders from 132 slums to advocate for government resources and rights for their people. Israel hopes to expand TAAMS to all slums in Chennai and beyond.
  • Janodayam forms women’s groups to help Dalit women start small businesses with government micro-loans.

His visitors all agree: “He has the best smile and laugh of anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Aaron Danowski (’17), a business major. “His whole face lights up,” said history major Jalene Herron (’15). “He’s constantly beaming with joy,” said Luisa Gallagher, Gonzaga’s service immersions coordinator.

Gonzaga is hosting the 2014 Opus Prize in October. The University has scheduled lectures and discussions on campus this semester to ensure opportunities for students to learn about these faith-based humanitarians.

Teams from Gonzaga University and the Opus Prize Foundation visited each Opus finalist this spring.

More on the Opus Prize gonzaga.edu/opusprize

As director of Janodayam, Mr. Israel works with a staff of 22, mostly Hindu women. Those part-time employees – largely community organizers – are scattered throughout the 40 slums where Janodayam focuses its work, explained Peggy Sue Loroz, assistant professor of marketing at Gonzaga. Mr. Israel and his core assistants operate out of a cramped single room, with two tables, paperwork everywhere and a single laptop computer. The only meeting space is outside in the shade, with the chickens and the dirt. No filing cabinets, and no office staff. Mr. Israel’s cellphone rang constantly, Loroz said, and he often juggled multiple conversations.

Over the years, Janodayam has launched many women’s groups – just 15-20 people in each. The small size allows members to support and learn from each other. Today, 5,000 Dalit women own small businesses, created the Janodayam way, with government micro-loans at 1 percent interest. Some women sell woven flowers, cleaning supplies or fish, supplementing their husbands’ tiny income – perhaps just four cents per day, for cleaning manholes. “The women are incredibly excited about being able to send their children to school to have a better life,” Danowski said.

Herron found strength and beauty in Janodayam’s approach. “I grew up in a community that is considered ‘poor,’ ‘underrepresented’ and ‘disadvantaged,’ ” she said. “It was truly inspiring to see an organization serving a community that, in a sense, resembled my own, but was implementing a grass-roots movement and change that impacted the lives of individuals and the community as a whole.”

Their first evening in Chennai, the Opus visitors participated in a slum celebration for the high marks achieved by two Janodayam students on their high school placement tests. Janodayam’s night school tutors Dalits and keeps them motivated in the public schools. “It was a joyous occasion,” Danowski said. “You could feel the pride of the community. It was not just the individuals, but the entire community celebrating because they had promise and hope, dancing and music. It was a fantastic night.”

The next day was tough, though. “The heat index soared to something like 117 degrees,” Danowski said, and the slum he visited felt almost post-apocalyptic. Cinder-block buildings with faded paint had bars across the windows; eight to 10 people lived in a single room. Vendors’ stalls – the small businesses created with Janodayam’s help – attracted hundreds of flies. Raw sewage puddled around a small well that produced drinking water. Around the corner sat more raw sewage.

“I don’t even want to think about what the living conditions are like when the monsoons come,” Danowski said.

Herron focused on the smiles, the welcomes and the empowerment she saw among the Dalits. One woman in particular welcomed their visit: “The living conditions in her community were much different than what many of us are accustomed to: space, running water, air conditioning, and privacy,” Herron said. Nine others lived with this woman in a very confined space. Through Janodayam she was able to have her own small business and bring in her own money to support herself and her children. “Empowerment and dignity can always be achieved,” Herron said, “and in a culturally appropriate way.”

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Heal their wounds

Sr. Tesa Fitzgerald, C.S.J.
Hour Children
New York City

The Challenge:
Up to 70 percent of incarcerated women have children. In the New York City area, most incarcerated women have childhood histories of physical and sexual abuse. Drug use is prevalent among this population. And the generation-to-generation cycle of incarceration is real.

The Opus Finalist:
A member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Sister Tesa Fitzgerald works to end the mother-to-child cycle of incarceration. Hour Children offers parenting classes to the women in New York’s prisons and gives newly released mothers access to education, job training, housing and mental health support. Their children are nurtured in day care and pre-school. The name Hour Children stems from the hour of their weekly visit, the hour of her arrest and the hour of her release.

“Sister Tesa knows everyone. There wasn’t a person that we would walk by on the street that she didn’t have some connection to. She knows everyone’s name and everyone’s life story,” said Carson Schneider (’17), a biology major.

In 1989, Sister Tesa brought her first foster children home to her convent. In those days, no transitional housing was available to mothers just out of prison. Without housing, the mothers couldn’t get their children back from foster care, and they couldn’t find jobs. The cycle of incarceration was endless – and the need more than evident. Today Hour Children operates three thrift stores providing jobs and revenue. Housing options offer differing levels of support.

“What hit me the hardest were the children,” said Hayley Medeiros (’15), a business major. “To many people, they’re a statistic. Because they have a parent who was incarcerated there’s a 75 percent chance that they will be incarcerated as well. Sister Tesa is making them ‘not a statistic.’ She says, ‘I’m not giving them a second chance. I’m giving them a first chance to be loved.’ ”

When the Opus visitors first arrived at Hour Children, they had difficulty with the intercom at the entrance. Finally someone – maybe a custodian – let them in. “When he opened the door I didn’t think twice about him. But I learned that he had been incarcerated and he’s been through a lot to get to where he is today. He’s very proud of himself. It opened my eyes,” Medeiros said.

Guards in New York prisons used to routinely shackle pregnant inmates during labor and delivery. Schneider’s voice goes raw with emotion as he tells how Sister Tesa and others protested this. New York outlawed the practice, but inmates report that some guards defy the law.

Two correctional facilities house Hour Children’s Centers where services include free transportation so that family members can bring children to visit their mothers. Once the women are released, Sister Tesa’s programs provide supportive housing, a loving community, mentoring and the education and job training that they need to build a stable life.

Law student Meaghan Driscoll recalls a woman at Hour Children who had been a victim of sex trafficking. It was her normalcy that struck Driscoll. “I think there is no further debasement of humanity than being a victim of sex trafficking. But through Sr. Tesa’s ministry, she had been restored to being a happy, functioning woman, who could laugh and work fulltime in the nursery,” Driscoll said. “It blew my mind.”

Lazarina Topuzova, assistant professor of organizational leadership at Gonzaga, shared this story: “One woman told us about a really low point in her life, when she had gone back to drinking and using. She called Sister Tesa in desperation and Sister Tesa told her she could come back. Many organizations provide short-term services, but that is not enough to prevent recidivism. Hour Children, on the other hand, has not only comprehensive services, but they are not time restricted. They allow for the clients to move toward recovery at their own pace.”

Hour Children has served more than 9,000 mothers. The organization reports a recidivism rate of just 3.5 percent.

“I see a correlation between children in Spokane, children in New York, and children in Zambezi,” said Medeiros. “We’re all God’s children.”

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Spend your life working with these poor

Father Joe Maier
Mercy Centre
Bangkok, Thailand

The Challenge:
In Bangkok, nearly 2 million people live in slums. Many left rural villages for the city, but lack education and skills. Adjacent to the city’s main port, Klong Toey is one of Bangkok’s 2,000 slums. Poverty, addiction, AIDS, sex trafficking, violence and black markets proliferate.

The Opus Finalist:
Father Joe Maier arrived in the Klong Toey slum in 1967. He worked in the Slaughterhouse area, so named for the impoverished Catholics who butchered pigs. A Redemptorist priest, Maier created a preschool for the Slaughterhouse children. So began the Mercy Centre in 1973. The pre-school took all children, no matter their religion. Today, 22 Mercy Centre preschools enroll 2,500 children in the slum. Father Joe’s mantra is “Go to school, go to school, go to school.”

“His words still echo in my brain,” said Allison Crha (’16), a nursing major “Father Joe has discovered the simple solution to the world’s deepest poverty, inequalities, conflicts and diseases: It starts with education.”

In addition to pre-schools, the Mercy Centre runs orphanages, provides legal aid for street children, cares for AIDS patients, and educates slum dwellers about HIV and AIDS. When slums are destroyed by fire, the Mercy Centre leads rebuilding efforts. It offers small-business financing, advocacy and help for the handicapped, as well as other services.

The slum has existed since the 1950s, when the Port Authority of Thailand brought in rural workers for construction projects in the port. Many never left. Today, a polluted canal and a railroad bisect Klong Toey. Rickety dwellings crowd up against both of these hazards. In 1971 Mother Teresa visited Father Joe. By all reports she found the conditions in Klong Toey as bad as those in the slums of Calcutta. “Spend your life working with these poor,” she told him. “If you can.”

He could, and he is. Now 74, he has transformed thousands of lives. He beams when he is telling of others’ accomplishments, and he is quick to reach out to the quiet teenager who is not quite engaged.

“Father Joe is so human – in all respects. He’s just an ordinary person like the rest of us, and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s so inspiring,” said Greg Gordon, assistant professor of environmental studies. “Father Joe would hate me for saying this, but the easiest way to explain it is to say that he is the Mother Teresa of Thailand. He’s been there for 45 years, and the community completely responds to him.”

“Everywhere we went, people knew Father Joe,” said Francis Chau (’15), a sociology major. The Gonzaga and Opus visitors found Mercy Centre to be an oasis in the midst of the slums. “The kids are happy. They’ve come from who knows what conditions on the outside. And the kids living there are full of joy,” Gordon said.

Thailand is predominantly Buddhist; Father Joe works with the local imam and monks. “He connects with the people around him, despite any differences they may have. This became very clear to our team as we watched him visit both the local mosque and Buddhist temple,” Crha said.

Hundreds of orphans live at Mercy Centre. “When we arrived we were greeted by the children at the school,” said Chau. “One came up to me, and with no hesitation, hugged me and gave me the biggest smile, like I was her new best friend. She grabbed my hand and dragged me around the Mercy Centre, eventually leading to the girls’ dormitory. She showed me her bed and her hula hoop.”

The Opus visitors accompanied Mercy Centre social workers on home visits to AIDS patients. “You could see Ally taking her skills from Gonzaga and seeing how they can be processed in the world,” Gordon said.

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