The Catholic Commentator  

As January’s chill turned into February’s thaw many families were sent scrambling by soaring utility bills.  

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Catholic Relief Services ‘ annual Rice Bowl campaign is underway and runs through Easter. Twenty-five percent of the money raised stays local, and much of that money has helped low-income families pay soaring heating bills during this unusually cold winter. CNS photo


Heating bills that in some cases tripled caused by record-setting cold in January created financial havoc for many, to the point where some families were forced to make the gut-wrenching decision as to either turn up the thermostat or buy food for the family.  

“It’s a shame if we have to decide between being warm or eating food,” said Jean Dresley, director of mission engagement for Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge. “That should not be a choice we have to make.” 

Fortunately, many families have found relief through the Catholic Charities Social and Community Responsibility Department. The fund helps low-income families in a number of ways, including covering utility bills during a crisis. 

Dresley pointed out that a portion of the funding for that department comes through the annual Catholic Relief Services’ Rice Bowl campaign. Although the perception among many is that the Rice Bowl campaign, which concludes at Easter, assists people in far away lands, Dresley said 25 percent of the money raised in the diocese goes directly to the Social and Community Responsibility Department. 

“(Rice Bowl) does help people here in our community,” Dresley said. “It allows us to serve people we would not otherwise be able to help. People are really struggling.” 

She said utility bill assistance is the leading request of calls coming into 211, which is a resource line for community members who need help in a number of ways. 

Dresley said the distinctive Rice Bowl boxes, which are distributed at schools but also available through church parishes, are often used for students and families to drop loose change during Lent. 

“It is that but it’s so much more,” she said. “The Rice Bowl in my opinion really represents the Gospel of love that we are supposed to be all about. When people assemble those boxes and put money into those boxes, what they are really doing is assembling broken lives by helping people locally and around the world.” 

She encouraged people that instead of stopping for “that cup of coffee” or purchasing “that special treat” during Lent, put the money that would have been spent in the Rice Bowl box. Statistics show the money will be well spent. 

Catholic Relief Services, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, touches more than 120 million lives in 112 countries worldwide. Donating a dollar a day for the 40 days of Lent helps provide one month of food for a family, two years of seed for a farmer or one emergency kit for refugees, according to CRS figures. 

In 2016, Rice Bowl donations totaled approximately $60,000 in the diocese, although it dropped to $33,000 in 2017 as the effects of the August 2016 flood extracted its financial toll on thousands of families.

“(The collection) is huge for Catholic Charities and helping people right here,” Dresley said. “It allows us to keep one more family warm this winter or cool in the summer. There’s never enough assistance out there for these kinds of needs so every little bit of it is so important to us.” 

She acknowledged that CRS is often confused with Catholic Charities. She pointed out that Catholic Charities is a domestic agency while CRS is an international arm. 

Dresley also admitted that a changing political climate could potentially present challenges since the majority of the money is going overseas. But she counters that by saying that if the argument is why don’t people stay in their own countries rather than immigrating or fleeing to the United States, then “we need to create sustainable lives (in foreign countries), get them educated, get them health care, get them food, help them in disasters.” 

“If we can be peacemakers, if we can have their basic needs met, if we can figure out ways to create conditions in their countries where they can stay where they are, then they don’t need to come here because they are happy where they are,” she said. 

“We are supposed to be seeing Jesus in the face of everyone, not just people that look like us,” Dresley said. “It’s very hard to get that across.”

Included in the Rice Bowl box are recipes from around the world, and daily meditations.