April 17, 2020

Spirit of Hope Award winners help give hope and change lives

By Natalie Hoefer

Each spring, St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities in New Albany honors two people with the Spirit of Hope Award, the agency’s highest recognition. This year’s winners are Joan Cahill and Paula Robinson.

Typically around this time of year, the honorees would receive their awards at the organization’s largest fundraiser, its annual “Giving Hope—Changing Lives” gala.  

Like so many events, the gala has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While Cahill and Robinson will receive their awards when the event is rescheduled, The Criterion felt now was an appropriate time to celebrate those honored for something so needed in today’s challenging times: a spirit of hope.

Paula Robinson: ‘A perfect model of giving’

Robinson, 73, recalls a time when she and her late husband lived just down the street from what was then called St. Elizabeth Maternity Home.

When asked if she’d been told then that she would one day receive the organization’s highest honor, “I would have said no way,” she responds. “I wasn’t volunteering at that time—I was too busy raising a family and working.”

She and her husband later moved to Florida. After her husband died several years ago, Robinson returned to southern Indiana to be close to her family.

She recalls visiting with the agency’s then-development director, who told her about the 2005 merging of the maternity home with Catholic Charities. 

“I went to their gala and immediately got interested,” says Robinson, 73. “Once you go to the gala and listen to all the programs and things going on, it touches your heart. I knew this was an area I could give to, and it would really make a difference.”

She began volunteering for St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities around 2008—and made a difference herself.

Among her efforts for the organization, Robinson served on its advisory council from 2010-13. During that time, from 2011-13, she also chaired the committee for the gala that had first sparked her desire to contribute to the agency.

The member of St. Mary Parish in Navilleton “offered great leadership while serving on the St. Elizabeth advisory council,” says agency director Mark Casper. “She was a leading advocate for St. Elizabeth’s entry into offering an affordable housing program.  

“She demonstrated great vision in a period where decision and leadership were key. It was during her term on the council that St. Elizabeth experienced great growth, and Paula was instrumental in this happening.”

Casper describes Robinson as “a perfect model of giving her time, talent and treasure, and all with the utmost humility and a what-can-I-do-to-help attitude.”

That willingness to roll up her sleeves and help is still visible today, and not just in the affordable housing units.

“I did lots of painting—lots of painting!” Robinson shares with a laugh. It was during her time on the council that the organization not only added the new housing units, but also converted the former Holy Trinity Parish’s rectory into its administration and social services building and renovated its transitional living home.

“I painted rooms and trim and fences—whatever was needed when we moved into the new office and re-did the new transition home,” she says. “I think I’ve retired from painting if I can get away with it,” she adds with a laugh.

Receiving the Spirit of Hope Award is “an honor,” says Robinson. “I’m thankful I’m in a position where I can give of my time. I feel like I’ve been blessed in my life with what I have and my family, and I need to give back to my community”—and the organization through which two of her nephews were adopted, she adds. 

Robinson says devoting time to family curtailed her availability to help the organization for a while, but she still volunteers “as needed, and I hope to get back into it more.”

Casper refers to her “humble” and one who “often prefers to stay in the background.” 

But make no mistake, he adds: “Paula has been instrumental in bringing

St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities to the next level” of giving hope and changing lives.

Joan Cahill: ‘She loved those girls!’

When Cahill learned she was selected to receive one of this year’s Spirit of Hope awards, “I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I thought, ‘All I was doing was my job,’ and I couldn’t have done it without my wonderful staff.”

But Cahill’s job was no small task. She began working in 1989 as the newly established St. Elizabeth Maternity Home’s first social services director, a role she held until retiring in 2005.

“She spent 16 years pouring her heart and soul into creating programs that would provide help and create hope for those in need,” states a press release announcing Cahill’s award. “Joan worked tirelessly to offer services that filled gaps that other funding and government assistance did not.”

Cahill—who at first claimed to be “39 and holding” but later admitted to being 83—says her job “was a dream come true.”

“It was fantastic to know you were doing good and helping those young ladies, and helping change their lives around. It was just a great feeling, very rewarding.”

Cahill, who with her husband Joe is a member of St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County, admits it was “hard not to get too attached” to the young pregnant women she helped in the maternity home.

“She never went home without talking to all the residents,” says St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities development director Dawn Bennett, noting the home could provide housing for up to seven women at the time. “She would go back on nights and weekends if there was ever an issue.”

Cahill recalls going to the ceremony when one of the young women she helped graduated from the University of Louisville.

“It was great to see her get her life turned around and have a good future,” she says. “It was always wonderful to see them make something out of their life.”

The press release notes that Cahill “served all clients with passion and professionalism, setting a standard of excellence that agency staff endeavor to uphold even today. Joan’s work has made a lasting impact on maternity home residents, adoptive families and staff alike.”

Casper enthusiastically agrees. 

“St. Elizabeth’s was her life,” he says. “For her it was a real passion, never just a job. ... She loved those girls!

“Joan set the tone when there was no St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities. She had the vision, and she left behind the culture and passion that makes St. Elizabeth’s special to this day.” 

For Cahill, it comes down to hope. 

 “When they come here, those young women don’t have hope at all,” she says. “But here, they pick up the pieces and get on with their life.”

(For more information on its services or to donate to St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities in New Albany, go to www.stecharities.org or call 812-949-7305. For updated information on the Giving Hope – Changing Lives gala, go to the above website and select “Events.”)

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