University student ambassadors Darby Drake and Colin Agostisi attend an event during an Opus Prize site visit to Shreveport, La.
The Catholic University community’s involvement in the $1 million annual Opus Prize honoring faith-based humanitarians from around the world has helped transform lives, say students and faculty involved in selecting the finalists. The $1 million award and two $100,000 awards will be granted at a Nov. 3 Opus Prize Awards Ceremony that is open to the public.
The Opus Prize Foundation selects a different Catholic higher education partner each year to help nominate humanitarians who are unsung heroes, organize the selection committee and site visits by students and faculty, and host awards week events in part to help connect each university to changemakers throughout the world.
A group of ten students and faculty selected as University ambassadors played a key role researching and selecting each non-profit as part of the 15-month due diligence process, including traveling internationally for site visits earlier this year.
The three finalists are neighborhood development non-profit, Community Renewal International, based in Shreveport, La.; Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, Nigeria, which promotes peace through dialogue amid Christian-Muslim strife; and Damien House, a residential hospital in Guayaquil, Ecuador for Hansen’s disease (leprosy) patients.
A delegation from each organization will arrive ahead of the awards ceremony for a week of events to introduce them to the campus community, including tours, classroom visits, and panel discussions.
“It’s a once in a lifetime experience,” said business administration junior and student ambassador Jamie Besendorfer, noting that the University is the first to host the Opus Prize twice, last in 2007.
Besendorfer spent several days in Ecuador as a University ambassador learning about how Damien House works to fight against stigma and superstition around the hard-to-catch and curable Hansen’s disease through education and compassionate care.
Besendorfer said that upon her arrival, she was greeted by the founder, Sr. Annie Credidio, BVM, with a welcome balloon — a thoughtful gesture she hopes to repeat when the Damien House delegation arrives in Washington, D.C., for the awards week.
“I was really moved by Sr. Annie’s humility…she put everyone else before herself. She always had a smile on her face,” said Besendorfer.
Sr. Annie Credido, BVM with a Damien House patient.
Besendorfer said she was touched by the lengths Damien House goes to create a space where everyone is included, honored, and welcomed. She attended a Mass at the hospital where people sat in solidarity with the many patients who have difficulty standing due to common complications of the disease, including muscle weakness or paralysis. Hansen’s disease often affects the respiratory system, so musical instruments such as tambourines and maracas were handed out so even those who could not sing could fully participate in the Mass.
Mass at the chapel at Damien House
Darby Drake, biochemistry senior, was part of the group that visited Shreveport La., where Community Renewal International was founded by Opus finalist and native to the city Mack McCarter in 1994. The nonprofit has helped local residents in distressed neighborhoods band together to rebuild safe and caring communities through Renewal Teams, Haven Houses, and Friendship Houses in cities in the United States and Africa. Crime in CRI neighborhoods has plummeted, with educational programming for children and adults offering hope for a better life.
Drake said she was so inspired by her visits to CRI neighborhoods in Shreveport, La., that she is working to start a chapter in her hometown of Frederick, Md. Although in the early stages of development, she is hopeful she can pursue service full-time once she graduates. In the meantime, she is working to build a mentorship program to encourage girls interested in biochemistry.
“God has always called me to give…and it made me even more enthusiastic about community service,” said Drake.
Community Renewal International is expanding to southeast Washington, D.C., and McCarter is expected to join a site visit open to students as part of the Opus Prize awards week of events. Faculty ambassador Kathryn Bojczyk, chair and associate professor of education, said she hopes that the week will help expose students to ways they can make a difference in their own backyards from changemaking entrepreneurs like McCarter.
“It’s amazing that one person has done so much. I really hope the students will come and meet him to see how they can be a light in their own communities,” said Bojczyk.
University faculty ambassador Kathryn Bojczyk speaks with Community Renewal International founder Mack McCarter during an Opus Prize site visit to Shreveport, La.
Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa and Pastor James Movel Wuye, directors of Interfaith Mediation Centre
University ambassador and junior politics major Molly Mullin said that this year’s Opus Prize theme “Inspiring Changemakers” is an especially apt description of a mission-oriented and kindhearted campus community.
Although her group’s site trip was canceled due to a spike in violence in Nigeria, Mullin said that even over a series of Zoom calls, hearing directly from changemakers who have overcome so much, including their own prejudices, was still a life-changing experience. Interfaith Mediation Centre founders Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye were once blood enemies but now are brothers in teaching warring militias and opposing religious groups how to resolve their differences peacefully.
“I will bring their story with me wherever I go,” said Mullin. “I hope to apply what I learned to create space for people…to express themselves and bring people together.”
Faculty ambassador William Barbieri, ordinary professor of ethics in the School of Theology and Religious Studies and director of the peace and justice program, said it was “refreshing and energizing to hear firsthand from their struggles and achievements.” Barbieri has invited both religious leaders to share their real-life experience with students in his course on interfaith peacemaking, which Mullin is currently taking for her minor in peace and justice studies.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to learn about organizations doing great work,” said Mullin. “I’m excited for the student body to encounter these groups and get inspired.”