May 10, 2019

St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities in New Albany celebrates 40 years of ‘giving hope, changing lives’

During the St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities “Giving Hope, Changing Lives” gala on April 25 in Louisville, Ky., Ariel LaGrange, left, shares the story of how the New Albany agency helped her and her daughter Ava Isabella, right. (Photos by Natalie Hoefer)

During the St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities “Giving Hope, Changing Lives” gala on April 25 in Louisville, Ky., Ariel LaGrange, left, shares the story of how the New Albany agency helped her and her daughter Ava Isabella, right. (Photos by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Ariel LaGrange was 24 and unmarried when she became pregnant. She balked when her mom encouraged her to contact St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities (SECC) in New Albany for help.

“I said I didn’t want to live [in their crisis pregnancy home] because I have family to support me,” LaGrange, 31, recalled.

“Then my mom said they had more to offer than just the pregnancy home, like counseling. … It was through their counselors that I learned to become an adult.”

While the counseling was instrumental, LaGrange said, she struggled to find a job to support her and her daughter and felt “stuck in poverty.” Fortunately, she qualified to rent an apartment through the organization’s Affordable Supportive Housing (ASH) program.

“We’ve lived in our own home for two years now,” LaGrange said as she gestured for her 7-year-old daughter Ava Isabella to come on stage with her. “Thanks to St. Elizabeth’s, I’m now able to support myself and Ava.”

As she grabbed her daughter’s hand and raised it high, nearly 700 supporters gave them a standing ovation.

LaGrange’s story was one of several shared at the organization’s annual “Giving Hope, Changing Lives” fundraiser gala, held this year at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville on April 25. (Related: See a photo gallery from this event)

And her story is just one of thousands that could be told by those who have been helped by SECC, which celebrated its 40th anniversary at the annual event.

In the last four decades, the organization has merged with two other agencies, expanded from one service to eight programs, and grown from two buildings to 10, with additional offices in Louisville and Salem.

“When I think of all the women and children who have walked through our doors in 40 years, I’m both sad and happy,” SECC executive director Mark Casper told the crowd. “I’m sad for their need, but happy we could help.”

‘Never been a greater need’

The agency’s story begins with conversations in 1979 about a need for social services for unwed mothers in southern Indiana.

The need was acknowledged by the “pastors of the Southern Indiana parishes and Catholic Charities Indianapolis [as] a responsibility belonging to them.” Such were the words of a contract formally signed in 1980 between the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Charities and Price Counseling Associates in Louisville.

And so began Catholic Charities New Albany as an agency offering counseling services to “the unmarried mother, her family and the alleged father.”

In 1986, the agency added a Supported Living Program to help maintain independent living for those with developmental delays in Clark and Floyd counties.

The following year, the agency became the coordinator for Floyd County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, adding Washington County in 1993. CASA volunteers assist children innocently caught up in the court system.

“Because of the growing drug epidemic, there’s never been a greater need for adults to speak up for children,” Casper said at the gala. With SECC’s help, last year 74 CASA volunteers helped 372 children—an increase of 271 percent in the last three years.

From teens to 30-year-olds

Nearly a decade after Catholic Charities New Albany was founded, another organization was created in New Albany in 1989 to help unwed mothers and their children in southern Indiana: St. Elizabeth Regional Maternity Home.

Those seeking help from the home “in the 1990s were mostly teens whose families didn’t want their names sullied,” Casper explained in an interview with The Criterion.

“Now the age goes up to about 30. And instead of mom and dad kicking them out, it’s more a case of the boyfriend saying, ‘I didn’t sign up for this, and if you’re not going to get an abortion, then I’m gone.’ ”

Occasionally a young mother at the home chooses to place her child for adoption, said Casper, a member of Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Jeffersonville. “But usually if they live [at St. Elizabeth], it’s because they want to parent.”

It soon became apparent that the young mothers still needed emotional and practical support after giving birth. In response to that need, the organization created a transitional housing program in 1996.

In 2004, St. Elizabeth and Catholic Charities New Albany combined to help unwed mothers and their children. They joined their services and their names, forming St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities.

‘We’ve had to change with the world’

“Our growth in the last 10, 15 years has been exponential,” said Phil Kruer, past vice-president and president of SECC’s advisory council and a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Starlight.

Now serving as head of the council’s facilities committee, he noted with a chuckle that he “put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that expansion.”

In 2012, several structures along a one-block stretch on Market Street in downtown New Albany were acquired. They include a donation of the nearly 170-year-old former Holy Trinity Parish rectory—now SECC’s administration and social services building—and several homes renovated to create nine ASH units.

That same year, SECC received certification from the Council on Accreditation (COA) as a social service agency.

“That [accreditation] took us from a ‘mom and pop’ or ‘good people doing good things’ agency to an agency with a lot of strong and transparent and high-care social services,” said Casper.

Those services expanded in 2014 when SECC acquired Adoption Bridges of Kentucky in Louisville, now called Adoption Bridges of Kentuckiana.

“By merging, we took their staff, who are skilled at working with and training adoptive families and at finding birth mothers, and matched that up with our residential programs and counseling,” Casper explained. “It was a perfect fit.”

Growth continued in 2015, when SECC constructed a new building to house its Marie’s Ministry Community Distribution Program. The service originally offered donated baby items to those served by SECC. With the expansion from a 200-square-foot space to a 2,500-square-foot building, the program was able to accept furniture and appliances as well.

Also in 2015, SECC began providing a licensed social worker to a local Catholic school “to meet the changing needs since the [state’s] school voucher program started,” Casper said. The service is now offered in four Catholic schools in the New Albany Deanery.

And just last year, SECC opened a culinary training kitchen where clients can learn a marketable skill set. SECC was chosen as Impact 100 of Southern Indiana’s first-ever grant winner, receiving $50,000 for the project.

“Everything we do comes out of the need to meet the needs of today,” Casper emphasized. “The world has changed, and we’ve had to change with it.”

‘Couldn’t do it without caring community’

The organization’s expansion occurred despite a financial setback. In 2014, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) drastically reduced funding to agencies offering shelters and low-income rent services—both a major part of SECC’s services.

“Since HUD funding was reallocated, the community has lost two shelters in southern Indiana, including a shelter for women experiencing domestic violence,” Casper said. “We’re now the only emergency women’s shelter in the area.”

New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, told The Criterion that the city is “very proud of the organization and the work they do, and we’re very fortunate to have them here in New Albany. They fulfill a very important need in our community. And they do so with a lot of love and respect, providing their services with dignity to those who turn to them.”

To honor SECC’s pivotal role in the community, in 2014 the city of New Albany declared June 30 as “St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities Day.” And in light of the HUD funding cuts, the city also presented a $25,000 check to the organization, which receives no municipal funding.

According to Casper, one-third of SECC’s budget is donated, while “the rest is earned income—billing for adoption studies, state reimbursements.

“There’s almost no funding left for shelters. We rely on $450,000 in donations and grants as well as $200,000 in donated materials and time to make our $2 million budget work. We just wouldn’t be able to do it without a caring and loving community, volunteers, donors, staff and prayers.”

Noting that nearly 96 percent of every dollar donated goes directly to funding services, he acknowledged that “people want to help people. No one is excited about putting a new roof on a shelter or administrative costs.”

Rather, Casper said, a 5 percent stipend through the archdiocese’s United Catholic Appeal assists with the costs for SECC’s 16 full-time and 14 as-needed employees.

“Giving to the appeal is just so critical,” he stressed. “It allows the greater Church [in central and southern Indiana] to contribute; then money is redirected back down into the deanery for St. Elizabeth’s. If we had to raise an extra $100,000 for administrative costs, we’d have to lose staff or drop services.”

‘This is St. Elizabeth’

A good portion of SECC’s needed donations for services comes through its annual gala.

Donations are still coming in, Casper said, but so far $281,000 has been raised, nearly $11,000 more than last year.

The evening of live and silent auctions featured LaGrange’s talk, as well as videos highlighting SECC programs.

Each year at the event, a “Spirit of Hope” award is presented to a person or persons in recognition of their dedicated service to the organization. This year, Tex Very and Page Walker received the award. Both have served for many years on SECC’s advisory council, and both currently serve on the council’s development committee.

Casper was particularly excited about one aspect of the evening: For the first time in the gala’s history, the archbishop of Indianapolis was present to give the keynote address.

“You bring home what Pope Francis reminds us,” Archbishop Charles C. Thompson told the crowd. “He talks about accompaniment—meeting people where they are, but not leaving them there, … looking them in the eyes as you meet their needs.

“I applaud you. … You lead people beyond where they are now. … I thank you for the dignity you find in every person you meet and serve. Never forget that you give witness to Christ when you serve others.”

In a lighter moment, LaGrange noted at the end of her talk that her daughter Ava was excited about coming to the gala.

“She wanted to know when she would get to meet St. Elizabeth,” she said with a laugh.

As she closed the event, master of ceremonies and Louisville ABC affiliate WHAS Great Day Live co-host Angie Fenton recalled the little girl’s wish.

“Ava, you wanted to meet St. Elizabeth,” Fenton said. Then gesturing to the crowd with a sweep of her arm she said, “Well, Ava, this is St. Elizabeth.”

(For more information on St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities and their programs, go to or call 812-949-7305.)

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