Inspired to serve: Davenport native works on COVID-19 response in West Bank, Gaza

Kevin O’Brien talks about Catholic Relief Services efforts in the Gaza and West Bank during a Zoom video conference Dec. 7.7

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

Kevin O’Brien remembers depositing pennies and quarters into his cardboard Rice Bowl donation box for Catholic Relief Services as a first- or second-grader at Holy Family Catholic School in Davenport. He shared that reflection from his residence in East Jerusalem, where he serves as a fellow with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) assigned to Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.

O’Brien talked about his passion for CRS and social service during a Zoom video conference Dec. 7 that CRS sponsored and Bishop Thomas Zinkula hosted. Deacon Joe Welter of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Iowa City provided a brief history of CRS and introduced O’Brien, who appeared refreshed and enthusiastic despite the time — 3 a.m. in East Jerusalem.

He arrived in the Middle East three months ago and began his fellowship with a focus on food security, civil society strengthening and peace building. Those components remain. “One of the areas I’ve been really happy to be a part of is the COVID-19 response,” he told his virtual audience of about 50 people.
O’Brien gave a shout-out to Project Renewal Director Ann Schwickerath and volunteer Amy Kersten for their commitment to the nonprofit in Davenport’s central city that serves as a positive presence for children and families in the neighborhood. O’Brien volunteered at Project Renewal when he was a student at Assumption High School in Davenport. His mom, Eileen O’Brien, and other siblings had volunteered at Project Renewal and their volunteerism inspired him.


Project Renewal, a recipient of CRS Rice Bowl funds, provided one of his earliest experiences of serving others. Those experiences and his education, which includes a master’s degree from Boston College, led him to a career in service, he said.

COVID-19 has taken a toll around the world, including the area where O’Brien serves. “CRS has stepped up to be able to respond to the many needs of the population in the area … I’ve already been able to see an impact. The need is great, but so are the results of the help,” he said.

Earlier this year he served an internship with CRS in Honduras, which ended as the pandemic took hold. Most of his work in the Middle East takes place on his computer or on the phone and involves the distribution of critically needed hygiene and cleaning supplies and ensuring that the financially struggling families receive those items. He is also interviewing people and writing about their experiences with CRS.

During his presentation, someone asked how “one travels from one side of the wall to the other,” referring to a photograph O’Brien showed of an imposing wall with barbed wire atop of it that separates Jerusalem from the West Bank. O’Brien said he feels privileged to have a U.S. passport that allows him access. People who live on the West Bank side of the wall require the government’s permission to be in Jerusalem, he said. The barrier limits opportunities to visit family, access education, health care and jobs. However, “It’s not nearly as barricaded as the wall in Gaza” where entry is severely restricted. He hopes to make his first trip to Gaza in 2021. Israel occupies both Palestinian territories, which are about 52 miles apart.

Someone asked whether CRS programs address women’s needs. O’Brien said every program is designed with deep consideration of its impact on everyone, women and girls included. A CRS water project he worked on in Honduras examined how it would engage and give opportunities to women and girls. He spoke of a program in Gaza for women with disabilities that involves building relationships with employers and with family members to show the capabilities of the women and to build greater understanding and employment opportunities.

Addressing a question about climate change, O’Brien gave an example of a project beneficial to coffee farmers in Honduras. “The effects of climate change are real and impacting local people on the agricultural front.” The consequences of climate change lead some people to migrate, he said.

Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action and of Catholic Char­ities, talked about the diocesan in-person con­nections with CRS. Bishop Zinkula, for example, traveled to India last year where he visited a rural village to discuss a polio eradication program that involved a partnership among CRS, government frontline workers the World Health Organization and other Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs). After returning to the diocese, the bishop met with staff of Iowa’s Congressional delegation to advocate for the Global Child Thrive Act, which is a part of CRS’ hunger relief efforts.

The work of people like O’Brien helps raise awareness in the diocese about CRS and the work it does around the world on behalf of people in need, Ferris said. On Jan. 7, the Social Action Office’s monthly Lunch and Learn Zoom meeting will focus on CRS Rice Bowl from noon to 1 p.m. (register at https:// “Our responsibility to be aware and generous is what ultimately allows you, in country, to do the great work you do,” Ferris told O’Brien.

Alysson Riutta, volunteer manager–Midwest Region for CRS, identified ways for people to get involved in the work of CRS:
• Lead the Way Campaign (, a movement to create meaningful change for those most in need.
• Advocacy — write letters to the editor, contact or visit members of Congress and state legislatures, for example. Text LEAD NOW to 306-44 to receive alerts about issues.
• Giving — make financial donations, volunteer.
• Form or join a CRS Chapter. A chapter consists of a group of people who support CRS’ mission through measurable steps of advocacy and fundraising. Contact Riutta (alysson.riutta or Ferris ( or Deacon Welter ( to get started.

Bishop Zinkula closed the presentation by encouraging the audience to get involved in CRS in “any way you feel called to.” A longtime supporter of CRS, he feels called to give a significant portion of his estate to the nonprofit that puts faith into action “to help the world’s poorest create lasting change” ( The bishop added, “Let’s keep CRS doing wonderful work for years to come.”

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