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Catholic Charities celebrates 80 years of serving those in need

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Students in a Catholic Charities Head Start classroom in Glendale are thriving when it comes to academic, social and emotional competency for kindergarten. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Students in a Catholic Charities Head Start classroom in Glendale are thriving when it comes to academic, social and emotional competency for kindergarten. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Send them the homeless, jobless, the victims of domestic violence and drug addicts, refugees and foster children, those with mental and physical problems.

All have been welcomed by Catholic Charities Community Services for the last 80 years. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted celebrated a Mass to mark the anniversary Sept. 27 at St. Mary’s Basilica, eight decades after 25 volunteer board members and a bishop established the social service organization.

“Every day we look into the eyes of domestic violence victims, of victims of human trafficking, refugees, immigrants, high school youth, the homeless. We feel blessed because we get to see the eyes of Jesus in all of these people,” said Bob Brown, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities.

Catholic Charities went from one employee serving 100 clients on a $1,000 budget its first year to reaching more than 100,000 throughout central and northern Arizona today on a $26 million budget. Each encounter has staff and volunteers helping Arizona’s most needy transition from a period of crisis to one of stability.

“We want to help them, to walk with them, to find solutions that work for them,” said Cathy Peterson, vice president of programs.

Catholic Charities impacted nearly 111,250 lives across 11 program areas in the last fiscal year alone. The agency has been a lifeline for more and more following the recession five years ago. While the demand spiked, funding from government and foundations dropped.

The refugee and Head Start services have taken hits. The latter saw a 5.3 percent decrease in funding. That was enough to eliminate home-based services for preschool-aged children — a decision prompted by a community assessment.

The Head Start program still serves nearly 900 students in 58 classrooms throughout the West Valley. Some have waiting lists.

Students from low-income families spend morning or afternoon sessions in small and large group activities. Each one reinforces literacy, personal hygiene and gross motor skills.

Brian Fairbanks, a teacher aide in a Glendale classroom, loves seeing the students participate in circle time activities and learning through parent feedback that the progress continues at home too.

“They’re soaking it up like a sponge,” he said.

Fairbanks relishes the little milestones, like when one student recently began to recognize her name.

“You know they do have that head start. They’re not behind. They can actually make it,” Fairbanks said.

Still, the government funding crisis and budget cuts have impacted nearly 19,000 children across the nation.

“All we can do every single day is figuratively put one foot forward and count on the passion we have for serving clients,” Brown said.

Clients sense their passion. Steve Lasswell and his wife first came to Catholic Charities in 1980 as prospective adoptive parents. Lasswell spent a decade there as a client, adopting six special needs children of various ethnicities. They’re all in college or working, leading normal lives now.

Lasswell served several years on the adoption placement board, and starting in 1998, spent 15 years on the corporate board. He appreciates the emphasis on helping clients move forward on their own.

Catholic Charities calls it “Paths to Hope” because it’s all about bringing its resources, including community partners, to help clients out of poverty forever.  They’re thriving and establishing their own roots, Brown said.

That’s what is happening with graduates of the agency’s DIGNITY program — Developing Individual Growth and New Independence Through Yourself — which diverts men and women from a life of prostitution. Kathleen Mitchell, a survivor of the lifestyle herself, brought the program to Catholic Charities after launching it while serving time in Durango Jail in 1989.

“It has been a piece that has opened up their heart,” Mitchell said.

It was only because someone left money to Catholic Charities in their will that Mitchell was hired full-time in 1995. She opened DIGNITY House two years later, reaching 800 people and graduating 99 women and one man from its residency program. Mitchell said the housing element was crucial to turning their life around.

Criminal records prevented clients from getting their own home. Without it, some reluctantly returned to their former lifestyle as a means of survival. The DIGNITY program reached nearly 2,500 last year.

Since the beginning, bringing hope and resources to others has been at the heart of Catholic Charities in Arizona.

“Love people first. Reserve judgment until after we have met a person’s needs. There should be nothing narrow about a faith called Catholic,” Jesuit Father Thomas Massaro told parish social ministry workers at Catholic Charities USA’s annual gathering last month.

There is nothing narrow about Catholic Charities Community Services, which serves people of all faiths. Perhaps the segment of the population least represented is the elderly.

That’s only because demand for caregiver and other home services was so high 40 years ago, that having a Committee for the Aging within Catholic Charities simply wasn’t enough. The Foundation for Senior Living is an offshoot of Catholic Charities Community Services. Both are part of Catholic Charities USA.

Eileen Ward, the first director of what was then Catholic Social Service of Arizona, realized dependent children ended up in reformatories. Catholic Charities wrote and circulated a digest of child welfare laws. Ward’s efforts quickly ended the practice and essentially formed the state’s foster care system.

By the 1950s, Catholic Charities provided full adoption services. For 40 years, it also offered a home for pregnant teenagers.

“In answer to a strong demand on the part of priests, doctors, schools and agencies, marital counseling was offered to save marriages and to keep homes intact,” Dora Vasquez, a grants manager, wrote for the agency’s 50th anniversary.

Staff began using its office on Northern Avenue, one of seven current locations, in 1964. That period also featured four volunteer-run daycares, which ultimately led the City of Phoenix to work with Catholic Charities in creating the Head Start program.

A separate Catholic Charities in the East Valley opened in 1967 and expanded twice in the 1970s. Services expanded at the same time into Yavapai County and Flagstaff.

Catholic Charities gained its own Phoenix leadership in 1969 with Msgr. Edward Ryle as the first director. He served on various boards of directors almost until his death in 2005. Msgr. Ryle also spent 19 years as “God’s lobbyist” at the state legislature defending the poorest and most vulnerable in the community. Catholic Charities USA honored him with a Vision Award the year he died.

Catholic Charities’ vision for the future could be equally notable.

“Our hope and fervent commitment is to help more people in a more profound and lasting way,” Brown told guests gathered for its 80th anniversary celebration.

That requires connecting clients with jobs and housing. The Refuge is a new coffee bar whose multifold effort will provide refugees with job training, income for artists selling their wares in the retail section and a performance venue for refugees with musical talents. Catholic Charities worked with nearly 9,500 refugees last year.

To assist with housing, Catholic Charities is refurbishing two apartment communities that should open in Phoenix and Glendale by the end of the year. Both are near diocesan parishes connecting them with additional resources and volunteers to support and sustain themselves.

Catholic News Service contributed to this story.

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