by Cara Gardner

"And now abideth Faith, Hope, Charity, these three; but the greatest of these is Charity." -- Corinthians 13:13

It would be hard to quickly summarize all the services Catholic Charities provides. The organization is as diversified as any major corporation. But instead of "acquiring" smaller nonprofits, the organization seeks to collaborate with them; rather than finding innovative ways to get more customers, board members of Catholic Charities work overtime trying to reduce the number of people who need their services.

According to Donna Hanson, director of Catholic Charities of Spokane, her regional organization is "the largest sectarian nonprofit between Seattle and Minneapolis, between Calgary and Salt Lake City." Hanson has been with the organization for 40 years and was chosen as one of only seven women in the world to represent Catholic Charities of North America before Caritas, the international arm of the organization. Aside from an enthusiastic account of her encounter with the pope on her 47th birthday, Hanson shies from discussing her achievements.

"Our values are of respect, collaboration, compassion and justice," Hanson says, emphasizing the last word. "How do we journey with people and help them see [to it] that they get a fair shake? Whether homeless on the median [of Riverside], developmentally delayed or in our senior housing, every single person has dignity and is treated with respect."

Catholic Charities' commitment to the needy includes providing counseling, disaster and emergency assistance, medical assistance, temporary and permanent shelters, activism and education, senior services, immigration services, childcare and parenting services, life skills, and aid to those with developmental disabilities. Hanson explains that Catholic Charities reaches more than 44,000 people in the Inland Northwest; about 1,800 volunteers help deliver those services. In addition to 11 housing complexes, the organization runs 15 programs in 13 counties.

As impressive as the data may be, they don't begin to describe the stories of the people involved with Catholic Charities, or the extent to which charity transforms people - both givers and receivers. "It is we who are changed through this work," Hanson says, stressing the relationship between humility and charity. She smiles, remembering a woman who volunteered at St. Margaret's, a Spokane shelter for homeless women. "When she [started], I remember, she said to me, 'I'm scared spit-less,'" Hanson laughs. "Yes, that's exactly what she said. She had these stereotypes about these kind of women, and all this fear." Hanson went on, of course, to describe the change in the volunteer and how she ended up sewing Christmas pillowcases for every child at the shelter. People cannot walk away from these experiences, it seems, and remain unchanged.

When questioned about whether the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church have hurt Catholic Charities, however indirectly, Hanson says that the organization's work will continue undaunted. (The organization is separately incorporated from the Diocese of Spokane.)

"We're only more committed to doing what we need to do. In our 92-year history, I would say a significant number of people we serve have been victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. We have been, are and will continue to be committed to providing the best services we can."

The organization doesn't distinguish between Catholic and non-Catholic, and its core values include respect and dignity, helping it gain respect in return. The women of St. Margaret's, for example, were the first to make donations toward the new St. Anne's Children's Center, a state-of-the-art childcare center that will open in October. St. Anne's is a collaborative effort with Sacred Heart Medical Center and Gonzaga University.

The mission of Catholic Charities, evidently, is collaboration; its purpose is to build networks. Hanson beams when the collaboration over St. Anne's comes up; it's a long-realized dream.

"We connect donors with recipients, young with old," she says. "That's our strength."

For more information about the programs and services of Catholic Charities, visit:

Publication date: 08/05/04

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