July 6, 2012

CRS president embraces Gospel challenge of new position

Catholic Relief Services president and chief executive officer Carolyn Woo, a former Hoosier, poses for a photograph on June 21 in front of a poster featuring the lifesaving work of the U.S. Church’s international humanitarian aid organization. Woo was a keynote speaker at the Catholic Media Conference in Indianapolis. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

Catholic Relief Services president and chief executive officer Carolyn Woo, a former Hoosier, poses for a photograph on June 21 in front of a poster featuring the lifesaving work of the U.S. Church’s international humanitarian aid organization. Woo was a keynote speaker at the Catholic Media Conference in Indianapolis. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber) Click for a larger version.

By Mary Ann Garber

Scrolling through digital photographs saved on her cell phone, Dr. Carolyn Woo found the picture that had captured her heart.

The new president and chief executive officer of Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore had taken the photo during a trip to Port-au-Price, Haiti, to view the U.S. Church’s emergency assistance projects two years after a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake decimated the capital city on Jan. 12, 2010.

Smiling, she looked at the image again then showed it to a reporter during a June 21 interview in Indianapolis.

It was a picture of a message printed in large block letters with white chalk on the plywood wall of a small, temporary shelter erected by CRS workers at a tent city in Port-au-Prince.

“God is good,” the words proclaimed.

Woo said she will keep this message in her phone and her memory because it illustrates the healing power of God, and how much good can be done by the Church’s relief agency because people support its disaster assistance and humanitarian aid efforts.

“You think about how these individuals have gone through so much trauma,” she said, “and how what they have is simple compared to what we have. But there is that sense of livelihoods being restored, families coming back together again and … blessings portrayed in such simple writing.”

Woo visited Indianapolis to present a keynote speech during the Catholic Media Conference held on June 20-22, and said she was glad to return to the state where she lived for most of her adult life.

“I have been in Indiana since 1972 when I came over [from Hong Kong] for school,” she said. “I only left Indiana in January of 2012 to take the Catholic Relief Services position. There were two years within that period where I worked someplace else, but otherwise I’ve been a Hoosier all my adult life.

“… All the opportunities I had up to now were provided to me at either Purdue University [in West Lafayette, Ind.] or the University of Notre Dame [in northern Indiana],” Woo said. “Six of my seven years of schooling were made possible by scholarships at Purdue, and that offered me a great set of opportunities. In my Ph.D. studies, I had an incredible major professor then my faculty positions and administrative positions. Being mentored by the provost and the [former] president of Purdue University, Steven Beering, and also by the board chair at that point, Tim McGinley, gave me invaluable … opportunities.”

Her next administrative position was dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, where she helped the business school achieve top national rankings for excellence.

“At Notre Dame, [there was] another platform to do work that I deeply believe in, which is the combination of values and the rigor for success in business … in a faith context with a focus on service and the common good,” she said. “That was a privilege and an incredible joy to see thousands of our students coming into their own both as successful individuals, but also as people with a sense of giving back, a sense of what is the right way to succeed.”

Now, Woo’s focus is directed at helping the poorest people in the world through her new ministry at CRS.

“The needs of the world never end,” she said, citing the dire plight of the African people living near the sub-Sahara region as well as in South Sudan, Somalia and Kenya as areas of critical concern for CRS in 2012.

“There is a famine in the Sahel [Desert], the band that stretches across Africa above the sub-Sahara,” Woo said. “It does not get enough attention, but rainfall is below average and, compounded by some conflict situations, the people there are just not getting the food that they need.

“As always, we’re still very concerned with the South Sudan situation,” she said, “and particularly, as more refugees move into South Sudan, we want to be ready to have assistance there. And the whole area of Somalia and Kenya, where they are still having a famine issue, is a concern. East Africa is also a concern, but the situation there has not become drastic yet. In those areas, food scarcity is of great concern to us.”

Woo said she hopes that more Catholics will embrace the lifesaving work of Catholic Relief Services in developing countries throughout the world.

“What I would like to have the Catholics in this country understand, first of all, is that Catholic Relief Services belongs to them,” she said. “… It was founded by the U.S. bishops and so it belongs to the U.S. Church.

“The second thing I would like them to know is that the work CRS does is extraordinary in their name,” Woo said. “They should be proud of it.

“The third thing is that we do this work because of the Gospel message, particularly Matthew 25,” she said, “… and that this work is never done because there will always be people in need. Christ never said, ‘Take a rest.’ And also for them to remember that this work would not have been possible without the support of U.S. Catholics.”

Only one-third of the work of Catholic Relief Services is emergency relief, Woo said. CRS assistance goes well beyond that to enable people to help themselves.

“We follow the principle that our work is not just about emergency relief, but also is about stabilization—getting people’s lives back to normal,” she said. “The third thing we do is transformative change. We make sure that the systems and structures which we create [in disaster areas and drought regions] allow people to be much more resilient, much more self-sufficient, so that the next time a disaster hits they will not be vulnerable in the same way.

“The majority of our work is really to change lives for the better,” Woo said, “and to create solutions which are owned by the beneficiaries and which allow them to have long-term sustainable improvements.” †

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