Ellen Wayne was scheduled to lead a workshop on Catholic organizational identity for participants in Catholic Charities USA’s 2017 Annual Gathering, which took place Sept. 28-30 in Houston.
Wayne, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes, had expected the workshop would be held in a hotel meeting room or ballroom, and some of it was. Much of the workshop, however, took place outside of the hotel in such unexpected locations as a Houston warehouse and the streets of Beaumont, Texas.
That’s where Wayne and hundreds of other Catholic Charities staffers from throughout the nation lived out their Catholic organizational identity by participating in relief efforts for the thousands of Texans who were displaced from their homes after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the state in late August. In the aftermath of the hurricane, organizers of the Catholic Charities gathering changed the schedule to provide participants with opportunities to help with relief efforts. The workshop Wayne had prepared was cancelled, but she believes the experiences participants had out in the field were at least as valuable as the workshop would have been.
“I could be in a room speaking about Catholic organizational identity, or I could be out elbow to elbow with others actually doing it,” she said. “One of the primary tenets of Catholic organizational identity is preferential option for the poor. I can’t think of anything more demonstrative than actually being out there and responding.”
“We were modeling who we say we are, which is about servant leadership,” added Laura Opelt, executive director of Catholic Charities of Steuben County.
Joining Opelt and Wayne in Houston were Paula Smith, fundraising and communications director for Catholic Charities of Steuben County, and Jane Sokolowski, program coordinator for housing counseling services of Catholic Charities of Chemung and Schuyler counties. Smith said the tone of the entire conference was more somber and respectful than in previous years, but under the circumstances it just felt right.
This different tone was evident from the first night, when instead of attending a welcome reception, conference participants gathered in a hotel ball room and worked together assemblyline-fashion to pack boxes of personal-care items and cleaning supplies for hurricane survivors, Wayne said. And on Saturday, participants were bused to various locations throughout the region to help with relief efforts. Wayne ended up in Beaumont, where she was part of a large team distributing boxes of supplies to displaced residents. Wayne was stunned when she looked up at one point and realized the line of cars waiting to drive through the distribution point was more than a mile long.
“It was at once kind of heartbreaking and fulfilling,” she recalled.
Opelt and Smith said they experienced similar emotions on that Saturday, when they were bused to a large warehouse the size of an airplane hangar. The building was filled with huge mounds of donated supplies, so the volunteers first sorted the supplies into separate piles for cleaning supplies, toiletries and food. Once they’d finished the sorting, they assembled kits of supplies for displaced residents.
“We would take an empty box and kind of go shopping through the donations and try to put together a box that might get someone through a couple of days,” Smith said, noting that the experience was unexpectedly emotional for her. “I found myself becoming very concerned about who is going to be receiving these boxes, and whether (the contents) were enough.”
Sorting and packing boxes may seem like relatively minor ways to help, but the items participants packed made a big difference in the lives of the people who received them, noted Sokolowski, who packed supply boxes in the hotel. She said her direct participation in relief efforts was refreshing and reminded her why she and her colleagues do what they do at home every day.
Opelt said she was moved by the way natural disasters “level the playing field,” and heartened to see people from all walks of life and all parts of the country coming together to serve those in need.
“It’s unfortunate that disasters happen, but they do bring people together, and in a way where it’s about love and giving and caring and opening your heart and being of service,” Opelt said.
The experience also demonstrated the fact that “serving your neighbors” doesn’t just mean helping the people on your street, Wayne added.
“We’re bigger than any one neighborhood or any one county, and we have to recognize that our neighbors may be people who we’ve never met or who don’t live in our ZIP code,” she said.