CRS president: ‘The poor don’t get many chances so we have to try our best’


By Kelly Mescher Collins
For The Catholic Messenger

“We do what we do because of faith,” Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), said to a room full of people at the Iowa Institute for Social Action in Altoona Jan. 18.

Woo was the keynote speaker at the two-day event, held at Ss. John and Paul Parish and sponsored by the Catholic dioceses of Iowa and the Iowa Catholic Conference. The event aimed to help participants better understand Catholic social teachings and then learn how they can take action.

Kelly Mescher Collins
Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, talks at the Iowa Institute for Social Action Jan. 18.

“We are charged with action, and whatever we do we need to have results, which is a form of accountability,” Woo continued. “To be good stewards, we need to not just work hard, we have to work smart. The poor don’t get many chances so we have to try our very best.”


CRS assists 100 million people living in poverty in 100 countries around the world. Woo said they recognize that people give their dollars to help the poor — not for administrative costs — so they are very conscientious of how the money is spent. CRS spends just 6 to 8 cents of every dollar on overhead costs. Though the numbers of people in need can sound daunting, Woo wants to remind people that they are making progress.

“It’s really important to not come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what we do,” she said. “The glo­bal humanitarian (community) has solved a lot of problems.” She gave examples:

“Two billion have access to clean water that didn’t have access before,” she said. Thanks to medication, CRS has helped reduce the transmission rate of HIV from mother to baby in utero to 2 percent in afflicted areas of Africa. Unemployed in Haiti have been given jobs, thanks to resources provided by CRS that are also helping to rebuild the community. Farmers are learning how to be self-sustaining by working together in a cooperative to earn money while also better caring for the land.

Witness, worship and a call for action are words that lead the work at CRS, Woo added. “Witness is to make God real in the world,” she said. “If we really want to make God transparent in the world we have to make his love real.”

Bishop Richard Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines introduced Woo as the event keynote speaker. He found her talk inspiring. “She is a person who brings great inspiration and great practicality to the enterprise of serving the poor,” Bishop Pates said, adding that in the end, real people benefit from her work, especially those stuck in poverty.

Bishop Amos said Woo is “a passionate and articulate speaker. She made CRS and its work and its importance really come alive for all of us in attendance.”

Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, said he was pleased with the speakers and attendance. “It’s probably the biggest turnout that we’ve had in many years for the event.” People came from all over the state. He also appreciated having someone of Woo’s caliber give the keynote address. “We’re very excited to help her get the message out from Catholic Relief Services.”

A number of breakout sessions were also offered to train people for social action, which were well attended. “I think we have a lot of practical things that people can go do. And I’m very confident that we have another 150 people here today that are willing to go do it,” Chapman said Jan. 18.

Speakers from a variety of organizations, including Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Quad Cities Interfaith, gave tips on taking action on Sunday. Day two of the event focused on ways to influence legislators. Kathie Obradovich, political columnist for the Des Moines Register, was the main presenter.

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