Humanitarian Helper: Celeste Gregory '01

When Hurricane Maria devastated the Caribbean island of Dominica last fall, one alumna was there to help the island rebuild.

Celeste Gregory ’01 in Lal District, Ghor Province, Central Highlands of Afghanistan, where she worked as Head of Office for Catholic Relief Services.
Celeste Gregory ’01 in Lal District, Ghor Province, Central Highlands of Afghanistan, where she worked as Head of Office for Catholic Relief Services.

Dominica is an island in the eastern Caribbean, roughly twice the size of Philadelphia. Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, the country was known as “The Nature Island” among Caribbean travelers because of its lush rainforest and volcanic peaks.

Until Sept. 18, 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit the island as a Category 5 hurricane — the strongest possible — and destroyed Dominica’s rainforest and nearly every structure on the island.

Winds of a record-breaking 160 miles per hour pummeled Dominica (pictured), ripping bark from the trees and roofs from buildings. Driving rain caused landslides, and boulders littered areas that used to be riverbeds or roads. At least 27 people died, and, in the initial days after the storm, there was no electricity nor communication with the outside world.

“I’ve lived in a lot of conflict zones, including the Darfur region of Sudan and Afghanistan, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Celeste Gregory ’01.

Gregory was deployed to Dominica in her role as a technical advisor for Emergency Response for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official overseas humanitarian relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Church.

She arrived about three weeks after the storm and stayed for two weeks, providing desperately needed supplies. CRS, in partnership with Caritas Antilles, both members of Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 165 Catholic relief, development and social services organizations, distributed solar lamps, water filters and hygiene kits, as well as tarpaulins to temporarily cover destroyed or damaged roofs.

CRS and Caritas Antilles continue to provide materials for temporary shelters and building repairs and partner with the government water company to rebuild damaged water systems at schools and health clinics in the southern part of the country. Gregory will assist to coordinate relief efforts through the spring of 2018, both from the United States and on possible return trips to the island. 

A People Person

An international studies and French double major at Scranton, Gregory has worked for a decade with CRS in developing countries around the world.

She had always been interested in diplomacy and came to Scranton planning to leverage her international studies major into a career with the U.S. State Department. But it was not until her junior year abroad that Gregory realized she preferred being among people, rather than in a faraway classroom or office. While in Aix-en-Provence, France, she became involved with a group of university students led by a priest at a Catholic cathedral. The group attended Mass and had dinner together on Tuesday nights. There were two requirements for each dinner table: speak French and have at least four nationalities represented.

"She has taken the academic, ethicial and moral lessons from her Catholic and Jesuit education at Scranton and put them to work serving the needs of countless people."
-Gretchen Van Dyke, Ph.D.

“I met a lot of students from all over the world at those dinners, but particularly from developing countries,” she said. “Meeting those students and hearing their stories of growing up in villages without running water or electricity, plus the challenges they faced growing up, I started to change my mind about diplomacy. I wanted to work for an organization that could influence change at the local level and where I could easily interact with people in a community.”

She found that connection in CRS’s grassroots, collaborative approach and has stayed committed to the organization ever since. Gregory also shared her passion for humanitarian work as a guest speaker in the International Humanitarianism seminar taught by Gretchen Van Dyke, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, and Gregory’s former senior honors thesis director.

“Celeste’s work with Catholic Relief Services has placed her in some very difficult and dangerous situations, and yet her commitment to the principles of humanitarianism has never wavered, despite the painful conditions she has witnessed and endured,” Van Dyke said. “She has taken the academic, ethical and moral lessons from her Catholic and Jesuit education at Scranton and put them to work serving the needs of countless people.”

Standing Beside the Marginalized

She began at CRS in 2005 as a volunteer on a food security project in Madagascar, helping farmers increase rice production. After earning a master’s degree in sustainable international development from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, Gregory rejoined CRS and worked on agricultural and food security projects as well as education and peace building in Burundi and Darfur. In Ghor Province, Afghanistan, she oversaw the day-to-day programmatic and operational functions of activities, which included food security and community-based education programming. She also spent time in Chad, assisting in efforts to prevent child trafficking.

In all of these locations, CRS helps develop and improve health, agriculture, education and livelihoods. The Jesuit motto is “men and women for and with others,” and Gregory’s work with CRS emphasizes the “with.”

“One of the principles of Catholic Social Teaching is subsidiarity — decisions affecting communities should be made at the lowest levels. We don’t go in and say, ‘This is who we are going to assist.’ We work with communities to identify beneficiaries for our programs,” Gregory said. “And we assist the poorest and most vulnerable regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or religious affiliation.”

In standing with these marginalized populations, Gregory has lived in areas synonymous with war, violence and danger.

“Security is always in the back of your mind, and there certainly are risks involved in this type of work,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Gregory keeps doing what she’s doing because of an idea instilled at Scranton.

“At Scranton, we talked a lot about the magis and being men and women for and with others. Working with CRS is a continuation of that magis,” she said. “Humanitarian emergencies can be overwhelming, but what keeps me going is seeing the very positive results and successes of our projects, and the appreciation of the beneficiaries that CRS is there supporting them. It’s those glimmers of hope.”

See a video of Gregory working and hear more about those "glimmers of hope" here.

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