Dan Rooney and his family lives in Madagascar working for Catholic Relief Services. (Submitted photo)
CRS Rice Bowl is the annual Lenten program of Catholic Relief Services, which is the official relief and development agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Seventy-five percent of donations to CRS Rice Bowl supports the work of CRS around the world, while 25 percent stays in the local diocese to support hunger and poverty alleviation efforts. Since its inception in 1975, CRS Rice Bowl has raised nearly $300 million.
For Dan Rooney, Lent was always synonymous with the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl campaign.
“If you were to ask almost anyone in my class, they would all remember it. It was a pretty poignant event for us every year, from kindergarten through eighth grade,” said Rooney, who was a student at Blessed Sacrament Parish School in the 1980s. “A couple of days before Lent started, we would get our little cartons and assemble them in class, and our teachers would tell us how important our contributions would be.”
For Rooney, it was a ritual that exposed him to experiences far removed from his own. The images on the side of the CRS Rice Bowl carton expressed a reality of poverty and need that simply didn’t exist in his world — at least not yet.
Today, in his role of Chief of Party for Catholic Relief Services in the nation of Madagascar, Rooney has a different perspective on the annual CRS Rice Bowl campaign. The photos from the sides of the carton have come alive around him. No longer are they anonymous symbols of foreign hardships — now they are flesh-and-blood men, women and children who derive support from the $45 million USAID project he leads.
And the term “rice bowl,” too, has taken on a deeper meaning. It’s about more than support for him now — it’s about community.
“Do not come here if you don’t like rice,” said Rooney with a laugh. In Malagasy culture, rice is king. In the highlands where he lives with his wife Tanja Englberger and their children Leah, 12, and Angela, 9, the red clay produces a variety of red rice — “breakfast rice,” he said. The coastal lands produce white rice that is a staple of lunch and dinner.
“Your starch is always rice (when you eat in Madagascar),” he said. “There’s an incredible amount of nuance in it. People are very proud of their rice. But the starch itself isn’t nearly as relevant as the way it is treated.”
The sharing of rice in a meal has strong cultural significance for the Malagasy. “When we go into a community or a village to do events, no matter how little they have, they will always offer you a bowl of rice,” said Rooney. “It’s very much a fabric that ties Malagasy society together and breaks down hierarchies between people.”
Back when he was a student at Pius XI High School, Rooney never saw himself living in a place like Madagascar. In fact, after he graduated high school in 1996, he spent a semester at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin before deciding to attend UW-La Crosse, attracted in part by its closeness to home. But while a history student at La Crosse, Rooney was captivated by the mission of the Peace Corps. He joined as a natural resource management volunteer right after college and was stationed in a village on the cusp of the Sahara Desert in Niger. After the Peace Corps, he was awarded a Presidential Management Fellowship with the African Development Foundation, an agency of the United States government that provides grants to African entrepreneurs. Following that, he found himself back with the Peace Corps, working in Burkina Faso, Namibia and the Comoros Islands.
Since joining the staff of CRS in 2018, Rooney has called Madagascar home. Situated off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, the nation is inhabited by 27 million people, including about 4 million Catholics. The average yearly income per person is $500. The CRS office in Madagascar supports a variety of projects, from emergency work to adult literacy, and Rooney himself is involved in a project in the deep south of the country that is about five years into a severe drought.
“The dirty secret is that my day-to-day life isn’t that different than it would be working in an office in downtown Milwaukee,” said Rooney. “Most of my day is spent in front of a computer screen looking at spreadsheets and replying to emails. The difference is, I’m surrounded by an abject poverty that would be unrecognizable anywhere in the U.S., and I’m working in support of populations who literally don’t have access to or the availability of food.”
Rooney and his family try to get home to Milwaukee about once a year, though COVID-19 has made travel impossible. On three occasions over the years, he has returned to Pius XI High School to talk to the students there about the work he does in Madagascar.
Poverty in Madagascar is different from poverty in Milwaukee, or anywhere in the United States, Rooney said.
“It’s fundamentally different when there is no corner shop that sells food or there’s no Pick ’n Save a mile and a half away, or when there are no roads at all and no mechanism by which you could have access to food,” he said. “That’s where my emails and spreadsheets have a little bit more poignancy, because we understand that behind them, there’s an entire population that doesn’t even have the minimum. Everyone in our office feels like they have a greater purpose behind them. I think we all recognize that everyone — from the kindergartener putting a quarter into their CRS Rice Bowl carton to a large organized donor — you’re all connected to something greater than yourself, and we’re just lucky to be on the front lines and see the results of it day in and day out.”