New Catholic Charities Executive Director Says it’s ‘Such a Gift’ to Serve (Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)
As the new executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, Pam Russo is spending time getting to know the staff and programs of the agency that serves about 70,000 people annually in Middle Tennessee.
Russo has been busy meeting with Charities staff members based at the Catholic Pastoral Center and at off-site Family Resource Centers, as well as diocesan principals and pastors. "I'm finding Tennessee to be a very welcoming place," she said.
Russo, who arrived to start her new position in late January, comes to the Diocese of Nashville from the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she worked for Catholic Charities for more than a decade, including four years as executive director. The programs of both agencies are similar, she said, providing support for pregnant women and adoptive families, the homeless, immigrants, senior adults, and those in need of counseling and community support.
Russo takes over at Catholic Charities of Tennessee, which resettles hundreds of refugees from around the world every year, during a time of uncertainty for the United States refugee resettlement program. An early challenge of her new position, she said, "will be monitoring the refugee program and how we move through the next few months."
President Donald Trump's Jan. 27 executive order suspended the U.S. refugee resettlement program and banned travel from select Muslim-majority countries; he also announced a significant reduction in the number of annual refugees that will be admitted into the U.S., which has raised a lot of unanswered questions for those who work with refugees.
Russo noted that in recent weeks Catholic Charities has received a number of calls from community members asking how they can help support refugees. "It's great that people have responded so positively," she said.
Russo pointed to the success of Catholic Charities' refugee resettlement program over the last five decades."It's awesome to see how refugees are integrated into the community and become successful," sometimes within a matter of months after their arrival, she said. For now, her staff will continue working with refugee families who have already arrived, helping them find jobs, adjust to new schools, and navigate a new culture and language.
In addition to monitoring the refugee resettlement program, Russo said that some other early priorities will be budgeting and starting on a new strategic plan for the organization. That will include conversations with Charities staff and clients about the future direction of the agency.
"We're really known for the quality of our services," Russo said. "We've built a fantastic reputation and we want to build on that." She wants to continue to spread the message that "we serve everyone, not just Catholics. ... We're here to serve the poor and vulnerable, our services are open to anyone."
Russo said she will continue visiting Catholic schools and parishes in the Diocese of Nashville to strengthen ties with them. "This diocese is very engaged with Catholic Charities," she said. "I'm very thankful for that."
Russo wants to let all institutions in the diocese know that Catholic Charities is there for them as a resource, but also needs their support to thrive.
Russo, who was named as the new executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee late last fall, said she has been impressed with the dedication and enthusiasm of her staff. "I feel very privileged to work with this staff, who are devoted to Catholic Charities and our mission. It's hard work, but it's worth it," she said. "I'm also grateful to the bishop and the diocese," for a warm welcome, she added. Being based at the Catholic Pastoral Center, "makes me feel like part of the diocesan family," she said.
Russo was selected for the job from among 300 applicants in a national search and succeeds Bill Sinclair as executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. Sinclair retired Jan. 31 after 30 years in that position, and 42 total years with the agency.
Before serving as executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Allentown, Russo worked with that agency in other capacities. She also served as Secretary for Catholic Human Services for the Diocese of Allentown, managing a $26 million annual budget.
Russo started with Catholic Charities in Allentown in 2004 as a special projects coordinator and later served as a county supervisor for the agency in two counties in Pennsylvania, as a senior administrator, and as assistant director.
Before working in Allentown, Russo worked for Catholic Social Services in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, including a stint managing a shelter for homeless women with mental health and substance abuse problems and their children.
She is a licensed social worker and holds master's degrees in social work from Temple University and in administration of human services from Chestnut Hill College.
As a life-long Catholic, working for Catholic Charities helps her live her faith, Russo told the Tennessee Register in a previous interview when her hiring was announced. "I have just a passion for Catholic Charities," she said, and to have the opportunity to use her faith in her work "is such a gift."