August 22, 2014

‘A sense of community’

St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities: From ‘best kept secret’ to a leading agency in New Albany

In New Albany, St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities agency director Mark Casper, third from left in the front row, cuts a ribbon on Oct. 10, 2013, marking the official opening of the agency’s new administration and social services building. Built in 1850 as the rectory for the former Holy Trinity Parish, the structure’s historic preservation and restoration was completed during the last week of June. New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan holds the ribbon at left. (Submitted photo)

In New Albany, St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities agency director Mark Casper, third from left in the front row, cuts a ribbon on Oct. 10, 2013, marking the official opening of the agency’s new administration and social services building. Built in 1850 as the rectory for the former Holy Trinity Parish, the structure’s historic preservation and restoration was completed during the last week of June. New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan holds the ribbon at left. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

NEW ALBANY—Until about four years ago, New Albany had a little-known treasure in its midst.

“When I started here [in April 2010], it was known as the best-kept secret in New Albany,” Leslea Townsend-Cronin admits.

But the secret is out, she says, and New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan made it official: On June 30, he presented St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities with a check for $25,000 from the city council and declared June 30, 2014, as St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities Day.

The official declaration was the city’s way of helping the organization recognize its 25th anniversary. (Related: St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities facts and figure)

“There were four big things to celebrate,” says agency director Mark Casper of the special day. “We got the check, we opened our new 12-bed maternity home, the newest ASH [Affordable Supportive Housing] unit we bought opened, and the historical renovation of this [social services] building was finished with the windows being completed that week.”

Those four victories are not the only reasons to celebrate, says Townsend-Cronin, director of social services for the agency.

“We’ve really become a leading agency in this community with all the services we provide, particularly our shelters.”

‘There’s a sense of community’

“Shelters” is where it all started when the organization began as St. Elizabeth Maternity Home, an eight-bed crisis pregnancy center that opened in 1989. They receive young women from all over the United States, says Casper.

“We don’t turn anybody away. As long as they’re pregnant, we’ll find some way to house them,” although the job is a bit easier now with their new 12-bed facility.

In 1995, a new type of shelter was conceived and built, a transitional home that could house seven mothers and their children—up to two children under the age of 4 per mother—in small apartments. “They have up to two years at the transitional home,” Casper explains. “The average stay is 10 months.”

Mothers who move from the maternity home to the transitional home are encouraged to improve their lives, says Townsend-Cronin.

“Our main goal for them is a job and housing,” she explains. “So from day one, we get them working toward moving out into some sort of permanent housing. We push hard for them to look for a job and stable housing.”

Knowing a young women’s next step into renting an apartment or buying a home could be risky given their lack of experience, St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities recently started a third form of shelter called ASH—or Affordable Supportive Housing—larger apartments rented on a sliding scale based on income.

“The goal is for them to continue the improvement they’ve been doing in the transitional home or off the streets,” says Townsend-Cronin. “They get quarterly rent reviews, and paying rent plus utilities gives them the ability to build their own credit. The idea is that they’ll eventually be able to buy their own home or go into fair market rent.”

Through purchasing homes and former multiple-unit rentals and repurposing the former eight-bed maternity home, the agency now has five ASH units available, with two more to be completed by the end of the year and three more in 2015.

“We are the last emergency shelter for pregnant women, and we’re one of the last transitional shelters in the community,” says Townsend-Cronin.

The homes housing the ASH units—as well as the new maternity home and the transitional home—are all located on one block between 6th and 7th Streets, as is St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities’ newly renovated social services offices.

For the young mothers to move from the transitional home to an ASH rental “is not a baby step,” says Townsend-Cronin, “But they still have access to our services, where if they did go out into the community, they could hit a rough spot, be evicted and be right back in the same spot just because they don’t have that experience yet.”

And there is the security of the familiar, says Casper, a member of Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Jeffersonville.

“On the campus they have security, they have friendships they’ve made, sharing rides, access to case management and mental health, the distribution center,” he says. “There’s a sense of community they develop.”

Programs beyond ‘moms and babies’

In 2004, St. Elizabeth Home and Catholic Charities, two separate agencies in New Albany, were merged, creating one entity that served far more than women in crisis pregnancies. (See related list on this page.)

Beyond the maternity home, transitional housing and ASH units, St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities offers six other programs that meet the needs of the community beyond “moms and babies,” says Townsend-Cronin.

Counseling is one such service.

“Except for our ASH program, we require all of our residents to do individual counseling as well as group counseling,” she says. “And we also provide community outreach counseling.”

The community is also served by the agency’s Distribution Program “run totally by volunteers,” she says. With a form of identification and proof of a child, anyone can receive free baby food, diapers and formula. Baby and maternity clothing, blankets, car seats and baby beds are also available.

The agency also offers adoption services in Indiana and Kentucky, as well as providing home studies for international adoptions.

Through the agency’s Supported Living Program, Townsend-Cronin says, “Staff go out in the community and help adults with developmental delays to be able to stay in their homes. They take them to the grocery store, doctor’s appointments and things like that.”

St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities provides a Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Program for Floyd and Washington counties, which involves volunteers “who go into the court system when a child has been deemed in need of services to advocate for them. It’s almost 100 percent volunteer-run,” Townsend-Cronin adds.

Another court-related service offered by the agency is a Supervised Visitation Program for parents and grandparents required by the court to have supervision over their visits with their child or grandchild to ensure safe interactions.

“People used to say, ‘Oh, they’re the maternity home,’ ” says Casper of St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities. “Now that’s just one of nine things we do.”

More than ‘good people doing good things’

The agency’s stewardship, says Casper, goes beyond just offering services.

“We’re pretty lean,” he admits. “Out of every dollar we receive, 95.4 cents goes directly to services. We staff clean our own offices, and in the homes, the girls are responsible for doing their own cleaning.”

Stewardship is not the only reason the agency runs a tight ship. The decrease in government funding for shelters has led to a need for resourcefulness.

“HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] is moving less and less to funding shelters,” Casper explains. After receiving $187,000 annually in HUD funding for its transitional home since 1996, St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities’ funding was cut by $82,000.

“We’ve never gotten funding from the city. So we asked the city if we could get help for funding in the first year of reduced HUD funding to help us bridge the gap.”

New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan says the request “had strong support” among the City Council members, who granted the agency $25,000.

“We realize [St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities’] contribution to the city,” says the mayor. “They fulfill a very important need, and we support their mission.

“The outreach provided by St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities is very broad. This was an opportunity for the city to get involved and offset the reduction in funding they incurred.”

Casper says another financial advantage is that the ASH homes were paid for by cash through special fundraising efforts, so the agency has no mortgages.

“All the rent goes right back into maintaining the buildings,” Casper says.

The agency also saved money by moving the maternity home to the site that served as the former office building attached with an enclosed breezeway to the transitional facility.

More savings came in moving the social services offices to the former Holy Trinity Parish rectory.

When Holy Trinity’s church burned down in 1975, the parish was merged with St. Mary Parish just two blocks away, and the parish acquired the former Holy Trinity rectory.

St. Mary Parish donated the structure to St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities in the spring of 2012.

After historical preservation and energy-efficient changes were made, the majority of the agency’s 14 full-time employees moved into the structure in July of 2013. The final improvement, window restoration, was completed during the last week of June this year.

Through the recent changes and improvements, says Casper, “We’ve saved about $30,000 and improved our services.”

They’ve also improved their status in the community.

“We really work hard to make sure that we’re a part of community meetings that line up with our programs in order for our input to be put into what goes on in the community,” says Townsend-Cronin.

Thanks to strategic planning started seven years ago, Casper is proud of how far St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities has come in its 25 years.

“When I came here [in 2008], we had a great base of good people doing good things,” he says. “We have added to that to become an accredited social services agency that meets the community need, whatever that is at that time.

“We’ve completed 25 years. Now on to the next 25!”

(For more information on St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities and their services, log on to or call 812-949-7305 or 800-227-3002.)

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