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Leading Catholic Charities in the face of COVID-19

Monsignor Kevin Sullivan discusses how the nonprofit faced the challenges of the coronavirus and is now emerging from the pandemic.

As executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, Monsignor Kevin Sullivan took on the humanitarian response to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, tackled issues such as immigration, housing and homelessness and served as co-Chair of the Human Services Transition Committee under New York City Bill de Blasio’ administration. 

Bronx-born, but Yonkers-raised, Sullivan has been active in New York’s Catholic community as well as it’s community service network since the 1970s. He’s held leadership roles at local churches, co-founded several neighborhood development groups, and served on the boards of healthcare facilities, as well as housing and homelessness organizations.

Sullivan, now after Catholic Charities faced the challenges of COVID-19, sat with New York Nonprofit Media to discuss how the organization weathered the pandemic, responded to some of New York’s most pressing issues, and prepared itself for the road ahead. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As Covid-19 restrictions loosen and the pandemic’s end seems imminent, please discuss what the past two years have been like for Catholic Charities. What have been some of the challenges and difficulties, but also some of the triumphs or positive outcomes for the organization?

Catholic Charities has been part of the New York community for well over a century. The challenges [we’ve faced] have been the challenge[s] that all of us had as New Yorkers [during the pandemic]. Catholic Charities’s mission is providing help to New Yorkers in need and also kind of creating hope for them. It has been a particularly critical time for us because the needs of New Yorkers have just grown incrementally. Thanks be to God that we appear to be at the tail-end of the worst of the pandemic. It’s not over, but some of the signs [show] that we are over the worst of it. Catholic Charities is going to continue to provide the help we did pre-pandemic getting back in some ways to some of the more in-person services, but we’re all going to take advantage of what we learned. That some of our services can effectively be provided in a distanced way. In some cases we were able to expand them because of telehealth. Looking at coming out of this, I would say the issues of health, behavioral health and physical, are things that we are going to have to pay particular attention to as we go forward.

The effects of the pandemic on children have been an especially thorny subject in New York, particularly in regards to education and children falling behind. Within the past two years, Catholic Charities New York administered 3,000 youth in-person or remote enrichment activities. Please discuss those programs and how else your organization has been involved with youth throughout the pandemic.

As the schools were closed, we couldn’t do them in schools, but we did thousands of phone calls to youth and families to stay connected. We continue to stay connected with them and I’ll tell you a little bit of an anecdote. We tried to reach out with a great deal of regularity to all the families who were in our programs, and given the volume, maybe you didn’t do it every week. You did every other week or as often as we could. When we got to a family they’d say, “Hey, you didn’t call me last week. How come I missed your call last week?” So, when they said that, we knew it was worthwhile to keep touching base with them. That’s a critical piece. 

The one thing we did do during the pandemic is [that] we have a camp, maybe about 40 miles outside of New York City, a camp with trees, grass, all those nice things which, sometimes, are in short supply in the city. Because we couldn’t do sleepaway camp, we kind of turned it into a day camp. We would bring kids from the city who are in our programs, particularly in Washington Heights and in the Bronx, up to the camp for a day. Even in the midst of the fact [that] we couldn’t use it for sleepaway camp, we [still] provided some opportunities for kids who needed that type of recreation.

Homlessness has been a hot topic in New York City. On that subject, do you believe there is a disconnect or misunderstanding between housed and unhoused New Yorkers, and how has Catholic Charities New York engaged with the city’s homeless population, particularly during the pandemic? 

There’s a disconnect in our society, between the fact that every person should have a decent place to live and a lot of people don’t. That’s the basic disconnect. There are a couple of things that need to be tackled: one, we don’t have enough supply of affordable housing. We [Catholic Charities] are really in the business of actually trying to build new affordable housing. We need affordable housing for families with low income. That’s one of the things we believe. We also believe that with some of our neighbors, there are issues of mental illness [and] emotional problems which make it very, very hard for them to access the services that are available. So, part of what we are also engaged in is not [just] permanent affordable housing, but [also] safe haven beds [and] stabilization beds, so the people on the street, you know, they have [somewhere] to go if they feel frightened [by] some of [the] large shelter[s], but [want] a little bit more [of a] family-like setting where they may be able to feel less threatened. The disconnect is people need housing [and] we don’t have enough of it. Catholic Charities is building housing and trying to provide a way [for] people to get to that permanent housing, have the opportunity coming off the street, get the immediate help and services they need, and move on, one day, to permanent affordable housing. 

It sounds like Catholic Charities is at the forefront, especially in New York in not only bridging that gap, but also tackling the situation of not having enough housing.

I think we are. For over a century, we like to say we’ve been at the center of the fabric of a caring New York. There are many, many good people and organizations in New York and we don’t shut [out] our responsibility to be part of that caring community. The other thing, which most people know, but we always like to say [is that] our services are available regardless of a person’s religion. Doesn’t matter whether you’re Catholic, you’re non-Catholic, you don’t believe in God. If there’s a need and we can figure out how to meet that need and have the resources to do it, we’re going to help. That’s part of who we are. Our faith tells us that every individual is made in the image and likeness of God and therefore, as Catholic Charities, we have to be open to serving all of our neighbors in need.

How is Catholic Charities responding to the changing workforce culture that stresses better overall work-life balance, specifics being fair pay, career development, respectful and tolerant workplaces, and more? 

Without a doubt, that is an incredible challenge. Catholic Charities is facing the same crisis that so many organization[s] are facing, [like] recruiting [and] retaining good staff. In the middle of the pandemic, we equipped so many of our staff with mobile devices, [so they had] the ability to work remotely and our helplines and hotlines could be answered. We rotated staff, [and] provided PPE for staff. What we’ve learned during the pandemic was that there is work that can be done effectively and efficiently remotely. So, we are permitting our staff to do that. At the same time, we also recognize that there is an importance to in-person presence. We’ve mov[ed] towards a hybrid type of work environment. I don’t think we’re unique [in] this and we want to be able to respect our staff, [as well as] respect those who [we] serve. It’s a challenge, we’re adapting, we don’t have it all figured out by any stretch of the imagination, [and] hopefully we’re listening to our staff.

What are some new developments, projects, or initiatives people should keep an eye out for from Catholic Charities New York this year? 

I think you should keep an eye out for our housing [initiatives]. One of the things we’re expanding [on is] the fact that when we build housing, we want to build community. We don’t walk away from the housing [situation] once you hand the keys to somebody. We say, “Hold on for a second. Let’s try to build community among those 100 families, those 150 families who now have a good place to live.” Just because they moved in there doesn’t mean they didn’t have some baggage [or] issues. In fact, almost all of the housing we built, we leave room for a percentage of people who have been homeless, so we know that when homeless people move into permanent housing, they[‘ll] need [a] helping hand to be able to live well. 

The other area [we are focused on this year is] the toll that this pandemic has taken on the mental health of everybody. We have to continue the work of destigmatizing when people seek help for some emotional issues. Nobody would ever say if you broke your arm, don’t go to the doctor, let it heal on itself. Well, we[‘ve] got to have exactly that same attitude if somebody is suffering from significant depression. Don’t just say to the person “Get better.” Just like with a broken arm, get it taken care of. We[‘ve] got a lot of stigma in our society, which says that if you need to go to a counselor, you’re weak, you can’t do it on your own. I think you’re gonna see Catholic Charities being a greater voice for mental health and not making mental health a stigma, but something that can make us more whole and better actualize our human potential. 

Focusing on your own personal work, you’ve recently published your first book What’s the Message? Bible Basics for Busy People. Why do you feel it was necessary to target your book and summarize the Bible for those short on time? 

Well, because I’m one of those people. When God was giving out gifts, He didn’t give me a lot of patience. The Bible is about 800,000 words depending on [the] language. We New Yorkers don’t have time for that many words. After many years of reading the Bible, preaching about the Bible, listening to people, I said, “Let me see if I can come up with about 25 key passages that, if you read them, you’d get the basic story. What I also did [was] put a paragraph or two of my own [thoughts and analysis] after each of those passages because one of the things I believe is that sometimes, we think religion is so separate from our daily lives, especially since the words were written thousands of years ago. My little paragraph on those 25 passages basically said, “As I look at the world now, what do I think about this?” 

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