It was a strange way to find out I won a journalism award: from a Tweet among former colleagues mentioning that the list of winners contained an error.
It all started when one reporter who recently gave her notice to The (Toledo) Blade Tweeted her congratulations to Tony Cook, another former Blade reporter now working for the Indianapolis Star, for Tony winning three awards in the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists’s 2012 Best of Ohio Journalism competition.
Tony (@indystartony) Tweeted back that one of the three awards was actually for stories written by another former Blade journalist, the former religion editor, yes, yours truly. The honor was for “Scavenging for Hope,” a series I wrote about Father Don Vettese and his nonprofit agency, International Samaritan.
I had traveled with Father Vettese and students from St. John’s Jesuit High School in June, 2011, and reported on the comprehensive efforts they've undertaken help change the lives of those who try to make a living scavenging in the Guatemala City dump.
After the Twitter exchange, I sent a note to the Ohio SPJ letting them know about the mixup and they promptly responded that they had erred. My (not Tony Cook's) Guatemala series was indeed the winner of the 2012 award for Best Explanatory Journalism.
I am particularly proud of this series because I poured my heart and soul into the writing, which I wrote in a quick turnaround after arriving back in the states. It was so fresh in my mind and weighing heavily on my heart, and the story itself was so powerful that I just wanted to do all I could to make readers feel everything I was feeling.
Without a doubt, it was among the best reporting and writing I've ever done. And the experience -- meeting and interviewing people who work so hard, scavenging through the hot smelly trash for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, earning as little as $17 a week, who live in shacks with no running water, who can't afford medical care for their sick children, a mom who can barely feed her kids but can't even afford tortillas for herself -- has stayed with me ever since. I'm sure it was a life-changing trip for the St. John's students, many of whom come from well-to-do upper class Toledo families.
The experience brings new depth to the old saying, "Count your blessings."
My hope now is that the award helps to raise awareness about Father Vettese and the great work he and his team from International Samaritan are doing to help the poorest of the poor in Guatemala and around the world.