National Catholic Charities chief visits OKC
Sister Donna Markham, Ph.D., had planned to visit Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City when the agency celebrated the grand opening of its new, expansive headquarters at 1232 N Classen.
The Adrian Dominican nun didn't make it to the gala event but she recently traveled from Washington, D.C., to see the facility and visit with local leaders who run the faith-based organization.
Markham's status as president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities USA made her a VIP visitor as she walked the halls of the new headquarters with Patrick Raglow, executive director of Catholic Charities-Oklahoma City. She attended the local organization's annual mass and meeting during her visit.
"We're just thrilled to have her here," Raglow said.
He said Catholic Charities affiliates around the country range from small, with perhaps three staff members, to large like the Brooklyn agency that has 5,000 employees. Raglow said the Oklahoma City branch falls somewhere in the middle, with about 100 employees and a budget of between $6 and $7 million.
No matter the size, each of the affiliates are linked by their commitment to working on behalf of their respective communities, he said.
"We draw from the wisdom and experience of all those other organizations and it is through the work of Catholic Charities USA that we are connected," Raglow said.
Markham became the first woman to lead the national agency when she took the helm in 2015.
During a brief interview, Markham shared some insights into Catholic Charities' mission, its latest endeavors and her thoughts about the work of the Oklahoma City affiliate.
Q: What brings you here to Oklahoma City at this time?
A: I was hoping to come out here for the dedication of the (Catholic Charities-OKC) building and the chapel but I had a conflict so one of my team mates came out to be present for that wonderful occasion. I said to Patrick that I really wanted to get here myself and get a chance to see what’s happening here and have an opportunity to meet the staff, meet the board and get a sense of what the situation is here in Oklahoma City area and the Archdiocese here.
Q: Can you talk about your role as leader of Catholic Charities USA?
A: My role is president of the member organization for Catholic Charities organizations across the country. It’s the first time in 106 years that there’s been a woman in that position. In being a member organization, our job is really to serve what the needs of the people in Patrick’s position across the country and the U.S. territories. We work with them to find out what are the critical needs facing them in their work with people who are vulnerable and poor and how can we as a national organization support them both in terms of helping to procure funding at the federal level and with foundations and private donors that would be more expansive than one agency that reaches across the country. Also, what can we do to raise their professional development as people in this very sacred work? We want to have people who are very trained and very clear about the mission and dedicated to service. So that’s what we do at the national office. We also go and meet with people on the (Capitol) Hill and we talk about what are the policies that are going to be helpful for people that are living on the margins, what are the policies that could really hurt our people that are struggling -- families and children. We speak up and tell the story of Catholic Charities and we often bring people like Patrick with us so that our congressional leaders hear directly what’s going on on the ground.
Q: What are some of Catholic Charities USA's latest projects and priorities?
A: One of the things that we have done is we had a national strategic planning process for Catholic Charities for the entire country. It outlines what our commitment is, what our mission is and our vision. We’re very excited because the vision is new. It comes in response to a mandate that both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have said to us as people who are involved in the charitable work of the Gospel. We articulated this vision saying what we stand for and what we are going to do in the next five years. We identified seven strategic priorities: affordable housing, immigration and refugee services, integrated health and nutrition, leadership development and Catholic identity, social enterprise initiatives, disaster services and advocacy and social policy initiatives. These are areas that we really have to put our energy behind if we are going to make a dent in poverty.
Right now we’ve been working with three major areas in a bipartisan way. Those three areas would be poverty alleviation, prison sentencing reform and mental health reform. We’re actively engaged to reshape those policies. We weigh in from the reality side about what this is doing, what these situations are causing in each of these areas and how we can better address them together. So that’s been really fascinating. I’ve been in the position for little over a year and I’ve been able to get a bird’s eye view of what’s happening within the government. Sometimes that is a little challenging but Catholic Charities enjoys very great respect with our Congress and the (presidential) administration and we have high credibility because the money that we receive is used for the purpose that it was given and that’s really been important.
Being able to come out here to Oklahoma City has been very important because we collaborated very strongly when you had the tornadoes and the floods and all of these natural disasters. Our disaster response people, which is another one of our initiatives (priorities) , were very active in those crises. And then people here were trained in disaster response so right now Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City is sending people from here to New Orleans to help the people in New Orleans in the midst of that crisis. It’s setting up this network of people from one area that’s been through it can get trained and learn how to navigate the system and then can go out and support these other areas of the country that are in the immediate throes of crisis. That’s really a wonderful way to capitalize on the goodness of people who really want to help. They’re not in dire straits but they want to help someone who is. That’s going on right now.
Q: What are some challenges that Catholic Charities faces in doing “sacred work”?
A: Clearly the challenges for the future are going to be, depending on what happens with the government in the elections, how are we going to continue the support services to help bring people out of poverty. Depending on the willingness of our elected officials to continue to support those initiatives, that’s going to be a challenge. We have to think creatively about large scale initiatives to bring people into employment who have been long-term unemployed – not able to secure employment. That’s really the social enterprise development. We have to really brainstorm about solutions in that area because I believe that while it’s very necessary to be able to provide emergency services to people that have hit a crisis -– they’ve lost their home and they're on the street or they are experiencing a natural disaster -- they need a place to stay and food. But the bigger issue for me is how do we move from the hand out to the hand up. That’s health and wellness, it’s food security, it’s housing, it’s jobs, jobs, jobs. And maybe some of our folks are hard to employ because they’ve had a term in prison or they might have done something that makes them not too attractive to an employer so we have think real creatively and that’s going to be a big challenge for us I think. A third challenge is staying committed to talking to everyone, to not close the door on anyone who wants to work with us to help people who are poor and vulnerable. It’s a time when we need every person of goodwill who wants to help to be on the train with us as we move forward.
Q: What do you think of the work being done here in Oklahoma City?
A: I am so impressed with what’s happening here. It’s been an absolute delight to see what Catholic Charities is doing in this part of the country. The counseling services, the adoption-foster care services, all of the work that is being done to help people heal from all of the major disasters that you’ve had here –- I’m just amazed. I’m impressed by the dedication of the people who work here, by the board of directors, by Patrick himself. It’s an absolute joy to see this.
Editor's Note: Donna Markham will be part of the presidential delegation to the canonization ceremony for Mother Teresa of Calcutta planned for Sunday, Sept. 4, in Vatican City, Rome.