Sr. Donna Markham, OP, PhD, is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. The first woman to lead the organization, which was founded in 1910, Markham was formerly the president of the Behavioral Health Institute for Mercy Health. She is an Adrian Dominican sister and a board-certified clinical psychologist. Catholic Charities USA is a membership organization representing more than 160 diocesan Catholic Charities member agencies, which operate more than 2,600 service locations across the country. Last year, the organization served more than 12 million people in need. Commonweal contributor John Gehring interviewed Sr. Donna Markham about how the organization is responding to increased need during the coronavirus crisis.
John Gehring: How are you holding up and keeping hope during these difficult times?
Sr. Donna Markham: We are doing as well as possible at Catholic Charities USA, working remotely from our homes and continuing to try our best to assist our agencies, most especially those workers on the front lines of direct service. These are the people who are present to so many people on the streets in very dire straits, lacking shelter and food. You’re absolutely correct that we must look for signs of hope in the midst of this crisis. Our hope is buoyed each day by wonderful people and groups who have reached out to help us: corporations, private philanthropy, other nonprofits, and ordinary people who simply want to help.
JG: Outside of the federal government, Catholic Charities is the largest social-safety-net provider in the country. What specific increase in needs are you seeing now with so many people losing jobs and struggling with the broader economic impacts of this pandemic?
DM: There is a great need for food. With more people losing their jobs, this has created a groundswell of need at our food pantries across the country. Many have stepped up to help us and we are incredibly grateful. For example, we have received a large donation of food from the Church of Latter Day Saints and that will enable us to help stock seventy-five food pantries. Many companies, like Kraft/Heinz, Walmart, dairy farmers, the Dairy Board, and others, have provided direly needed food products. These needs are ongoing, however, and we will certainly need more help as these weeks unfold. Another significant need is to protect our caseworkers and frontline staff from getting sick. Until now, they have been interacting with people in our shelters and kitchens without any type of protective gear. Fortunately, we have been able to contract with a company that is manufacturing non-medical grade masks that we will distribute this week to the Catholic Charities agencies working in the “hot spots.” Another company, Gorilla Marketing, with their partner company HIT, are donating a portion of proceeds from t-shirts they are manufacturing to assist us.
Another serious need is for Catholic Charities to continue to provide counseling to people who are increasingly anxious and depressed. We are managing this through telehealth sites that are HIPAA compliant, but this is difficult in some of the more rural areas where electronic support is not available. To put this simply, we are accustomed to mobilizing the entire Catholic Charities network in natural-disaster situations where staff are deployed to an area that has been hit by a storm or a fire or an earthquake. Now, the entire country is experiencing disaster and no one is really able to be deployed elsewhere.
JG: Congress recently passed a $2 trillion stimulus package in an effort to respond to the fallout from the crisis. What kind of help did that provide for Catholic charity organizations and was it adequate funding?