Pope Francis' admonition that a shepherd must have the "smell of the sheep" is frequently referenced in the work of pastors and bishops. But for Edith Avila Olea, 22, it applies to any leader in the Church, especially those working on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. Edith, who serves as the Parish Outreach and Board of Young Professionals Coordinator for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, is the 2015 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award winner.
"Catholicism calls us to be anything but silent," she says. "Fighting for justice for all people isn’t an option for Catholics, it is our mission."
The Bernardin Award is sponsored by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. bishops. It honors a young person who has dedicated him or herself to addressing the root causes of poverty in his or her community. Edith will be honored during the U.S. bishops' annual Spring General Assembly, June 10, in St. Louis.
Edith describes her work for Catholic Charities of Joliet as one of building relationships -- between Catholic Charities, parishes and the people she serves.
So Edith's work takes her beyond direct service to those in need and into the realm of giving Catholic Charities' clients "their own human dignity back." It's about showing Catholics and community leaders that charity and justice are seamlessly interconnected. And then it's about getting everyone involved in the process, whether that's working for just wages or immigration reform.
"In our offices, we seek to find long-term solutions that lead back to self-sufficiency," she says. "Advocacy plays a huge role in this process. Every person who is a part of this process is answering their baptismal right of helping those in most need."
It's here that her own story imbues her with the "smell of the sheep." One of six children, Edith's family emigrated from Acapulco, Guerrero in Mexico when she was still a little girl. Edith says that growing up poor wasn’t easy. She attended five different elementary schools and two middle schools. Her family eventually settled in Georgia, where she witnessed the burden poverty placed on her parents, the stress of working multiple jobs and the failures of a broken immigration system. Through it all, faith provided the strength necessary to move forward and address the systemic issues of poverty.
This involved moving 12 hours away from her family to serve as the CCHD intern for the Diocese of Joliet, eventually becoming a full-time employee. Her twin responsibilities -- of outreach to parishes and the Board of Young Professionals -- are both initiative she started. The newly formed Board of Young Professionals, comprised of about 50 members, encourages young adults to serve and lead in the community.
"Our goal is to serve and lead in our community. They say that the best leaders are those who smell like their flock. This too requires relationships, most importantly relationships between the poor and rich. My goal is to have every service project give our board members an opportunity to see and interact with our clients," she says. "In this process, we are all learning how to see each other as neighbors. Together, we can advocate and create systematic change in society."