Opus Prize recipients may not be household names, but don't be fooled by their relative anonymity. The Opus Prize winner and finalists are beating daunting odds to bring about lasting social change in their communities and countries.
In these recipients, an unshakeable faith and a belief in entrepreneurship mingle and the results are stunning. Their efforts to help the poor and underserved transform their lives makes the case that real, upward change is possible and inspires others to get involved.
2014 Opus Prize Finalists
Fr. Joe Maier, C.S.S.R.
Each springtime, Fr. Joe Maier, a Redemptorist priest who works in the slums of Bangkok, Thailand, carefully dresses in his black and burgundy cap and gown which he wore when receiving his honorary doctorate from Thailand’s revered Thammasat University. He makes his way from one graduation to another in the 23 slum kindergartens he founded, celebrating with six and seven-year olds who have also donned a cap and gown for the first – but hopefully not the last time -- in their educational journeys. Graduation day is a standing-room-only moment for moms, dads, aunties, uncles, siblings, cousins, and the neighbor next door. It’s always an especially proud moment for Fr. Joe and the staff of the Mercy Centre Human Development Foundation, who have spent more than 45 years creating simple but progressive solutions that touch the lives of thousands of poor slum children and their families.
In its mission, Mercy Centre dedicates itself to building and operating schools; protecting street children’s rights; combating the AIDS crisis; responding to daily emergencies; and offering shelter to orphans, to street kids, and to children and adults with AIDS – always together, hand- in-hand and heart-to-heart with the people they serve. To live that mission, Fr. Joe has built many of his preschools over the objections of the government and sometimes his own Church. He has faced the AIDS pandemic head-on with a staff of 12 who conduct education and care for HIV positive patients in hundreds of homes. He has battled child traffickers by sometimes purchasing a child from the clutches of a predator.
In the process, he has earned the respect of destitute grandmothers living in hovels, government officials with whom he trades favors, Buddhist monks and the local Imam who pray with him, and the Crown Princess of Thailand who accepted his offer to place the Centre under her patronage. He claims that his faith is far from perfect and that he finds himself apologizing in every prayer he utters, but Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who wrote the forward for a book about Fr. Joe’s life, describes him as “…the vivid expression of God’s will for how we treat the human family.”
Sr. Tesa Fitzgerald
Since 2002, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of men and women in the world – nearly five times as high as the rate for comparable countries. It has become one of the great social issues of our time and a national scandal – one where solutions proposed by federal and state governments have failed miserably.
Undaunted by the magnitude or complexity of this problem, Sr. Tesa Fitzgerald, a Sister of St. Joseph for the past fifty years, has spent half of her professional life leading an enthusiastic staff at Hour Children, a nonprofit housed between two of the nation’s largest public housing projects In Long Island City, Queens that helps incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children successfully rejoin the community, reunify with their families, and build healthy, independent and secure lives. The agency provides housing, education, day care, job training and employment, and personal and addiction counseling in a compassionate environment that provides women not only a reason to hope, but a skill set to experience both personal and professional success.
Why is Sr. Tesa successful where so many others have failed? She tells a story about her prayer before opening Hour Children’s first home to reunite mothers and their kids. Sr. Tesa remembers praying, “…Oh God, I’ll have you know there is no money. There is definitely the need. If this is going to work, you’re going to have to put a lot behind it.” And through the years that’s exactly what’s happened.
For the past 18 years as the leader of the NGO Janodayam, Gollapalli Israel has practiced his Baptist faith working among the Dalit caste – the untouchables – in the slums of Chennai, India. The city is the sixth largest metropolitan area in the country and is congested, polluted, and littered with debris. Its waterways are heavily contaminated and the riverbanks reek with garbage. Most sidewalks are in tatters, and the traffic is intense. Nearly 600,000 Adi Andhras, the migrant caste in which Gollapalli was born, live in the 132 identified slums of Chennai. Everyone is poor and employed in menial jobs. The people Gollapalli has chosen to serve clean human and animal remains in the streets and sewers of Chennai for pennies a day, and literally risk their lives in the process.
The efforts of Gollapalli and his 50 part- and full-time staff is a commitment to human dignity and justice. They are everywhere in the slums of Chennai emboldening communities through their grass roots organizing, offering youth a better life through access to education, and empowering and training women to manage businesses and gain more independence. They literally give voice to a people who have not been heard for centuries.
Gollapalli Israel leads Janodayam with optimism and courage – a transformational figure who engages and inspires. He is an unrelenting advocate for his community, an unsung hero in most of the world, and a man whose profound faith is reflected each day in action.
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