May 9, 2014

Record crowd celebrates St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities 25th anniversary

Sister Mary Emma Jochum, a Sister of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, hugs a student after a recent Wednesday night religion class at St. Paul Parish in Tell City. (Submitted photo)

Sister Mary Emma Jochum, a Sister of St. Benedict of Ferdinand, hugs a student after a recent Wednesday night religion class at St. Paul Parish in Tell City. (Submitted photo)

By Patricia Happel Cornwell

LOUISVILLE—“The angels of Catholic Charities made me feel like a valued individual.”

Valerie Carter described her journey from abused wife to independent member of the community before a record crowd of more than 600 people at the April 24 gala celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities.

Carter was one of four former or current clients who spoke after the dinner at the downtown Marriott hotel in Louisville.

Louisville radio and TV personality “Kelly K” was mistress of ceremonies at the gala. More than $50,000 in corporate sponsorships had been pledged before the event, and auctions during the evening generated another $50,000. Pledges from those attending increased the total raised to $190,000.

Last year’s gala raised $172,797. Over the 20 or so years the gala has been held, it has yielded close to $2.4 million. The annual event is the New Albany-based agency’s major fundraiser.

The program opened with a video produced by students at New Albany High School, featuring a greeting from Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin. Father Wilfred “Sonny” Day, dean of the New Albany deanery, offered grace before the meal in a ballroom decorated with bouquets of white flowers.

“It was so exciting to see a record crowd,” said David Siler, executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries. “It was a fitting way to celebrate the establishment of St. Elizabeth’s. The clients who had the amazing courage to share their personal stories represent the thousands of lives that have been changed over the years. It was a beautiful night.”

This year’s gala featured both a silent and live auction, the latter led by auctioneer Doug Harritt. Guests bid on donated goods ranging from tickets to the Masters golf tournament valued at $5,000 to a handmade “teething ring” pattern baby quilt deemed “priceless.”

Carter, a client of the agency’s supported living program, has struggled with a lifelong developmental disability, but said the staff has helped her thread her way through life’s difficulties. After a divorce from an abusive spouse and knee replacement surgery, they helped her find an apartment and a job, enroll in the YMCA, navigate bus routes, and earn her GED high school diploma equivalency with the help of two tutors.

“I respected myself more as I learned,” she said. “Catholic Charities listens to me and helps me to get my arthritis medications and treatments and helps me to be a happy person. They helped me live on a budget.

“They helped me realize there are many kinds of people in the world, and they helped me find a place where I fit in. I am now a door greeter at my church, I go to Bible study, and I applied for Section 8 [subsidized housing] and moved to my own house. I decided to stop smoking, and Catholic Charities helped me stop. I am proud because on my birthday this year, I am no longer a smoker.”

A standing ovation followed Carter’s heartfelt appeal to “help Catholic Charities provide love and support for others.”

Standing ovations were also given to LeeAnn Wiseheart, a Floyd County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer; Paula Fullerton, whose daughter placed her baby for adoption through St. Elizabeth’s; and Marla Case, a single mother of two who escaped an abusive relationship.

Wiseheart told the heart-wrenching story of four siblings. “These kids are special because they have endured physical, sexual and emotional abuse,” she said. “They have been removed from their parents because of their mother’s drug use. On my first visit, I didn’t take a notebook and pen or wear a name tag. I came wearing jeans and bearing candy.”

She told of the violence, drugs and sexual abuse that caused the children to be placed in four different homes in three years. Their father was deported, and their mother continued using drugs.

“People ask me, how do you have the time?” Wiseheart said. “I don’t have time. I make time. I have six cases. How do I handle it? It’s simple. If I don’t, who will? Charlie had his angels [in the old TV show]; Judge [Terrence] Cody has his CASAs.”

Paula Fullerton, a retired oncology nurse, related the dilemma she faced when her daughter became pregnant. She also has a special needs daughter and was concerned that their home environment would not be ideal for a baby.

Her pregnant daughter was upset, but Fullerton said, “Instead of freaking out, I turned nurse on her.”

She called St. Elizabeth’s and talked to Emily Baumann, their adoption specialist, who made monthly, then weekly visits to her and her daughter during the pregnancy. They decided on an “open” adoption.

“I was continually praying for peace about this adoption,” she said. “We got to choose the parents—imagine that. We met them and talked for an hour. It turned out my daughter and the prospective parents had picked the same name for the baby girl.

“Now the adoptive mom sends us pictures and updates. It’s amazing how complete strangers can be connected through one little child. I’m convinced she has the best family ever.”

Marla Case was in an abusive relationship when she turned to St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities in desperation.

“In early 2010, I was scared to even sleep, for fear of what would happen. I had two children.” She contacted St. Elizabeth’s, and she and her children entered their residential and transitional program until she could get become independent.

“I was being offered a fortress, a safe place,” she said. “I gained safety, peace of mind, counseling, a structure for my life. I began to remember that I was a capable person.”

“The moms living there were constantly reminded of our responsibilities to ourselves and our children,” Case said. “We moms would have little kitchen meetings. We were there for each other. It was like an accidental support system. Friends don’t let friends’ lives be ruled by fear.”

Case related how delighted her little girls were with the toys in the St. Elizabeth’s play room and how the staff welcomed them. “The whole office staff kept a stash of fruit and snacks for the children. Countless times, the staff stopped their work to make my children feel special.”

Case ended her residency in early 2012, was newly married in November, and is now attending school.

Following the clients’ stories, former St. Elizabeth’s council member Paula Robinson made an appeal to the audience to be generous in supporting the agency’s growing ministries. Those in attendance were asked to fill out pledge cards. “Give from the heart,” Robinson urged.

Development director Danielle Archer told the crowd that fundraisers have to generate one-third of the organization’s $1.4 million operating budget.

“That is where you come in,” she said.

In his remarks, agency director Mark Casper described the growth of St. Elizabeth’s over the quarter-century of its service to southern Indiana and Louisville. The New Albany-based agency presently has nine programs.

“This year, we added a third housing program and consolidated our administrative offices into one building to make room for more housing,” Casper said. “We helped over 400 families after the March 2, 2012, tornadoes in Henryville. We added adoption and mental health services as needs arose. We built transition homes for moms who chose to parent. We opened offices in Salem and Louisville.

“Last year, we added an affordable supportive housing unit, a big step in self-sustainability. Last July, St. Mary’s [parish in New Albany] and the archdiocese gave us another building. When it is all renovated, we will have capacity to house 52 women and children.”

Casper praised the 219 volunteers who donated 13,425 hours of service in 2013 alone.

“We’ve certainly come a long way,” he reflected. “All of our programs have waiting lists. I wonder what would have happened if we had not been here.

“Tonight is not about bricks and mortar,” Casper added. “It’s about the clients we are honored to serve. They are why all of this makes sense, and why we have such a passion for this work.”

(Patricia Happel Cornwell is a freelance writer and a member of St. Joseph Parish in Corydon.)

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