Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA, gives a presentation Nov. 15 at the annual fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (CNS photo/courtesy Jeffrey Bruno, EWTN)

Be the face of Christ and ‘move the needle of poverty’

LUTZ  | Lately, there are thoughts that keep Sister Donna Markham up at night.

As the president of Catholic Charities USA, it might not be hard to imagine what might keep the Adrian Dominican sister up at night. The need is great in so many different communities and certain legislative actions could block possible grant proposals that keep critical programs running. The possibility of “zero entry” of refugees, including those seeking asylum, could “decimate” the ability to get funding from agencies.

The divisive political environment the country now faces has also cast a cloud over raising funds.  

“We get a lot of hate mail. It’s tough,” Sister Markham said about feedback during fundraising that could benefit programs that serve refugee populations. “We have been successful in raising substantial money (in the past). But it’s not like raising money for natural disasters.”

Still, Sister Markham’s dedication is steadfast, as is her mission to “move the needle of poverty.” And she encouraged members of diocesan Catholic Charities agencies of Florida to continue their own mission of advocating for those in need — whether they are the working poor, pregnant women, or immigrants seeking a new life.  

“We are one in dignity. We are one in love. We stand in solidarity with immigrants and refugees,” Sister Markham said to applause during the Florida Catholic Charities state conference held Aug. 22-23 at Bethany Center in Lutz. “We have to kindly change the hearts of the disheartened.”

During her presentation, Sister Markham reiterated the mission of Catholic Charities, which is “to provide service to people in need, to advocate for justice in social structures and to call the entire church and other people of good will to do the same.” She also relayed the vision of the agency: “As Catholic Charities, we labor in the streets inviting and serving those who have been left out to know and experience the tremendous and abundant love of God through Jesus Christ. We commit ourselves to break down walls of division that keep sisters and brothers separated from one another, excluded, or rendered disposable by our society. With joy, we resolve to build bridges of hope, mercy and justice toward the creation of a culture of communal care responsive to the cries of those who are poor.”

While offering disaster services is always a top item on the agenda for Catholic Charities USA, Sister Markham spoke about changing the tide of chronic homelessness through a partnership with other agencies, including Catholic Health Services. With her doctorate in clinical psychology, Sister Markham serviced in leadership positions in behavioral healthcare before being the first woman to hold the position of president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. She believes mental health plays a vital role in breaking the cycle of chronic homelessness. It’s not just about getting affordable housing, but healthy housing that residents are able to emotionally and financially sustain. 

Sister Markham said five cities — Las Vegas, Detroit, Portland, Oregon, Spokane, Washington, and St. Louis — will be the destinations for a program that hopes to reduce chronic homelessness by 20% in five years. She added the goal is also to reduce hospital admissions and emergency room visits by 25% to 50%. To embark on this program, Catholic Charities USA partnered with Catholic Health Services and spoke with the ordinaries of the dioceses within those regions to determine how they can help each other with those goals. This could include offering guidance for access to healthcare (which could include psychiatric assistance, substance abuse services, and monitoring necessary medications for blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic illnesses), but also locations for potential housing and warehouse space for necessary food donations. 

“Partnerships offer cost savings and impact investments,” Sister Markham said. 

Partnerships also play a role in serving immigrant and refugee populations, as Catholic Charities USA works with both Catholic Relief Services and CLINIC. The numbers of those in need are overwhelming. Sister Markham offered the example of the Catholic Charities local office in Laredo, which includes six staffers who recently saw 700 people a day. 

“Caseworkers are exhausted, and we have to identify forgotten agencies,” Sister Markham said. In response she hopes to use $1 million in funding to deploy case managers from other agencies to help the 22 agencies on the border. These funds could also be used to train case workers with experience in natural disaster response to hone those skills in helping with refugees.

After offering explanations and goals for different departments of national office, Sister Markham spoke about the need for those in leadership to understand what is going on with Catholic Charities on a local and national level, and how efforts always stem from Catholic Social Teachings. One thing she shared was a quote from an affiliate leader from another state who said, “the future of Catholic Charities is at the parish level. Those are my franchises.”

Those “franchises” can spur pilot programs that find great success, Sister Markham said, such as a soup kitchen that offers restaurant training for those who work there. 

“There are a lot of those kinds of programs happening everywhere, and we need to share those stories,” Sister Markham said. “That is how Catholic Charities is being the face of Christ to others. And it is for that reason we say, ‘This is why we are doing this.’”