The Catholic Ministries Annual Appeal raises money to help many ministries and agencies throughout the diocese. One important recipient is Catholic Charities, which receives $1.1 million from the appeal. In a recent interview with Carlos Briceño, Glenn Van Cura, the agency’s executive director, talked about the impact his agency has for those in need and some of the challenges his agency faces.
- What was the main reason you decided to work at, and become the executive director of, Catholic Charities?
Glenn: Sometimes, Carlos, you don’t choose destiny – destiny chooses you. After working in the corporate sector for more than thirty years, I felt something was lacking in both my professional and spiritual life. I knew there was more to life than a paycheck, and I wanted to make a difference. After much discernment and prayer, I decided to launch a new career in the not-for-profit sector. Having already received my bachelor’s degree and MBA earlier, I enrolled at Loyola University to pursue my MSW (Master of Social Work). When I completed my degree, I accepted a job at Catholic Charities Chicago as director of the Northwest region. While working for Charities in Chicago, I also sat on the board of directors at Catholic Charities, Diocese of Joliet. Through my work as a board member, I became very familiar with the programs offered through Catholic Charities, Diocese of Joliet. So when the executive director’s position became available, I interviewed for the position and was hired. I have never once regretted that decision, and I have felt very blessed ever since.
- What are some of the challenges facing Catholic Charities?
Glenn: Every day is challenging at Catholic Charities. As an agency, a challenge is funding which allows us to operate our programs. We fundraise for basic human needs. As such, we share in our client’s challenges. We share their highs and lows and their good days and bad.
Public perception of our clients is a challenge. Sometimes, when people are comfortable in their own lives, it is difficult to remember those who are living in crisis. Homelessness, mental illness, poverty, hunger, and issues related to aging aren’t always pretty, comfortable or popular. We ask that people not show a disregard for the homeless in the streets. We ask that they don’t ignore those inflicted with mental illness, those unsure where their next meal is coming from, or the seniors who are choosing between paying for prescription drugs, rent, or a meal.
- What are some new projects you all are hoping come to fruition in the future?
Glenn: Catholic Charities, Diocese of Joliet, is committed to staying current with the needs of our clients and the communities in which we serve. The agency is always willing to consider new programs and services when we know our clients will benefit. In reaction to the times, Catholic Charities has decided to take on the challenge of affordable housing. If you haven’t heard, next spring we will break ground in Channahon to build a 48-unit complex for seniors.
The need for affordable housing is staggering. The shortage is so severe that people integral to our communities are finding themselves in great need. Many teachers, police officers, nurses, firefighters, and other key occupations cannot afford to live in the communities where they work. Seniors in particular are being priced out of the communities in which they’ve spent their lives, and young families cannot afford to return to the communities where they grew up to raise their own children. Home prices continue to outpace incomes throughout Illinois. And for our most vulnerable clients, affordable housing simply does not exist.
Our project in Channahon is the first of hopefully many more affordable housing developments the agency will be taking on in the future.
- What is the biggest misconception you think people have about Catholic Charities?
Glenn: People are often surprised that Catholic Charities serves everyone regardless of their religious views. It is true that as an agency we are a faith-based charitable ministry deeply rooted in the Catholic faith and tradition, but, as Pope Francis teaches us, we don’t impose our faith on those we serve, nor do we seek to change their views.
- How has the struggles in the economy in recent years impacted the work you all do?
Glenn: It’s been tough. The state budget has wreaked havoc on many social service agencies. It poses a sort of domino effect on a social service agency. For example, when the state withholds daycare funding, people can’t work because they often have no one to watch their children, which leads to families being out of work. When families are out of work, they look to us for help. There is an increased need for rent and mortgage assistance; utility assistance; prescription assistance; and so on. When people cannot provide for their families, many become depressed or anxious, so more people look to our counseling department. We struggle addressing homelessness as our homeless shelters are operating at capacity. Larger crowds from the community flock to our soup kitchen, Shepherd’s Table, each day. Obviously, that puts a strain on Catholic Charities financially. It also makes it more difficult to fundraise within the community when folks are stretched thin taking care of their own families. It’s very challenging, but we are grateful to our donors and thankful that we’re making it work and are able to provide vital services to so many during these difficult times.
- How has your faith life been affected by the work you do and see others do at Catholic Charities?
Glenn: My faith has been strengthening during my years at Catholic Charities. I see the face of Christ in every client. Our clients are some of the strongest individuals I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. Our youngest clients (in our Expectant Mothers Initiative) haven’t been born yet and our oldest clients (in Aging and Disability Services) are over 100 years-old. Each and every one of them is facing hardship and poverty. The strength that I have witnessed when our clients are in their darkest hours is remarkable. And our amazing staff is truly doing God’s work within the Diocese of Joliet. This is the hardest-working, compassionate, and professional staff I have ever met. Sometimes the work that is required of them is messy, dangerous, and discouraging. But this group truly believes in our mission and never tires of their responsibilities. My faith is renewed each day when I witness the spirit of our incredible clients, staff, and volunteers.
- What are you most proud of during your tenure as executive director?
Glenn: I’m immensely proud of the ways in which the agency has grown. We are constantly evaluating the needs of our community and adjusting the programs and services we provide to accommodate the changing world. When we learned that families were struggling to access food, we introduced our Mobile Food Pantry program (in partnership with the Northern Illinois Food Bank), which provides healthy food to low-income families in areas which are considered “food deserts.” When we found out that many schools were unable to provide counseling services, we made professional, affordable counselors available to local Catholic schools. We have begun providing services to homeless (and at-risk) veterans in our SSVF (Supportive Services for Veteran Families) program. And in response to local natural disasters over recent years, we have begun to provide large-scale disaster relief services. In Kankakee County, we have expanded our services to seniors and those with disabilities to ensure that these populations can live with dignity and self-sufficiency, and, as we have already spoken about, this spring we will break ground on our first affordable housing project. I am also very pleased with the advancement of our Head Start Program. The agency now has five Head Start Centers and an Early Head Start Program, which includes our Expectant Mothers Program.
Every agency Head Start center is NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) accredited, which ensures parents that the services offered are of the highest quality and procedurally follows standards for best practices. Additionally, each Head Start site has received the Gold Circle of Excellence determined by the ExceleRate of Illinois. But as proud as I am of each advanced initiative or new program, I am equally proud of our basic human needs services that help advance our clients through that “new door” God has chosen for them, once an “old door” has closed. Watching our clients gain the courage and tools needed to advance to a life of self-sufficiency is a very fulfilling feeling.
- Why is it important to donate to the Catholic Ministries Annual Appeal and what would you like to say to people who donate to the appeal?
Glenn: As Catholics, it’s very important to donate to the Catholic Ministries Annual Appeal (CMAA) to help fund the ministries that provide support to people throughout the Diocese of Joliet. Catholic Charities is one ministry that receives funding from the appeal. We are so very grateful.
Pope Francis asks that each of us walk with the poor, that we serve the poor. In a fast-paced life filled with family commitments and jobs, sometimes it seems impossible to take time away to serve the poor. However, one way to serve the poor is to donate to the CMAA. We are so thankful to everyone who helps support this appeal. On behalf of Catholic Charities, I would like to thank those who support the appeal, and I want them to know that their donations truly make a difference in the lives of their neighbors when they need it most.
We are a faith-based organization providing service to people in need and calling others of good will to do the same.