WASHINGTON (November 1, 2001) -- Jean Souffrant, 23, an active volunteer for social justice in Miami who came to the United States from Haiti at the age of 13, is the 2001 recipient of the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award presented annually to recognize young Catholics demonstrating leadership in the fight against poverty and injustice.
The Award is sponsored by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the national anti-poverty program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and honors Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928-1996). The Award will be presented in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, November 11, during the USCCB's annual meeting.
"I am happy and proud," said Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora. "In honoring him, you also honor the Haitians in general, for Jean Souffrant's contribution to the community and his dedication to the Church is not atypical for this vibrant and dynamic community of newly arrived immigrants determined to make their mark in this country."
Souffrant is a youth leader for Miami-Dade County's PACT – People Acting for Community Together, a coalition of 25 interdenominational Christian churches that identifies concerns among low-income residents and works to resolve them. Souffrant's interest in social justice stems from remembering his arrival in the United States speaking Creole but no English.
"Not being able to speak English was a challenge," he said. "There were so many times when I would have spoken but I couldn't. I missed so many things. PACT is a voice for the Haitian community in Miami that can't speak for itself, because they don't speak English or don't know the culture. There are people who can't go to school or earn money, and who are mistreated. I see myself in their shoes."
When he arrived in Miami in 1991, Souffrant was joining his father, Joseph Souffrant, whose presence and support protected the boy against the injustice he saw others face in this new country. "I also had great teachers," he said, and mastered English in three years. Prior to coming to the United States, Souffrant lived in Cap-Haitien with his mother, Etrenne Louissaint, who remains there but is in close contact with her son by phone and visits. "She worked hard to raise her own two children and five of our cousins," he said. "There were seven kids in our house. I never realized how poor we were until I came to the United States."
An active member of the Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church in Miami, Souffrant is the parish's volunteer youth minister in a youth group that spans the ages of 13 to 27.
"These kids don't need what I needed; they speak English," he said. "But some of their parents have needs, because they don't understand English or the customs their children are adopting." The youth ministry often helps bridge the gap between parents and their children and explain each to the other, he said.
As a PACT volunteer, he helps mobilize young people to attend coalition meetings and organize activities around two key issues. One is convincing community officials that more buses need to be added to public bus routes so that low-income residents can travel to jobs. The other is to advocate for educational opportunities in low-income communities.
He has also begun training other young people as youth leaders in the organization, and Souffrant said it is important for volunteers his age to understand the issues. "If we understand that tomorrow we might be the ones fighting for these kids, it's easier if you understand the educational issues now," he said.
PACT Executive Director Aaron Dorfman remembers Souffrant's leadership during a difficult moment in a large community meeting, when the young man stepped to the front of the room and spontaneously led a thousand people in song that lightened the moment.
"He has an infectious enthusiasm for justice work and community work," Dorfman said, praising Souffrant's leadership and organizing abilities. "He can take the long view of social justice, understanding that all change doesn't happen overnight, which is an unusual point of view for a young person."
A permanent resident of the United States, Souffrant is a 1996 graduate of North Miami Senior High School. He attended Miami-Dade Community College for two years, and now takes classes at the University of Miami while working as the manager of the Jenny Craig Center in Coconut Grove.
Souffrant is the fourth recipient of the Bernardin Award. According to CCHD Executive Director Rev. Robert J. Vitillo, "This award is designed to honor outstanding young leaders between the ages of 18 and 30 who work against poverty and injustice in their parishes and local communities, and to encourage other young people to follow their inspiring example."
Cardinal Bernardin was a strong supporter of CCHD during its inception 31 years ago. He remained a supporter while serving as Archbishop of Cincinnati and Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago.
CCHD, which is sponsored by the Catholic Bishops of the United States, is one of the nation's largest funding organizations for self-help programs for the poor, and supports community-based projects that attack root causes of poverty and provide a hand up rather than a handout. Through an annual collection in parishes across the country, CCHD has distributed more than $250 million to more than 4,000 self-help projects nationwide over its 31 years. In 2001, CCHD announced more than $10 million in grants to support 317 local projects, selected without regard to religious affiliation, in 47 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
For more information about Jean Souffrant, the Bernardin Award, the eight finalists, or CCHD, contact Paige McMahon by phone at 301-320-8053 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on PACT, contact Aaron Dorfman, executive director, at 305-643-1526.