Essential work in the crisis

BRIDGEPORT—When Mike Donoghue took helm of Catholic Charities on December 1, last year, he barely had time to get to know staff and review the agency’s many programs when the pandemic hit.

Within days of the state’s shutdown orders, the number of people coming forward to Merton Center in Bridgeport and New Covenant Center in Stamford tripled—and that was just the beginning of the demand for service.

Donoghue, who retired from a successful Wall Street career in finance and investment, was no stranger to the non-profit world. He made sure to carve time out of his busy work schedule to volunteer in soup kitchens, serve on boards and give back to the community, but he walked into a crisis of historic proportions.

“It has been a real interesting, challenging and invigorating year. I was just getting settled in and a sense of the organization before the void hit and so many things had to be done at once. This is our super bowl,” says Donoghue who along with his Catholic Charities team has more than risen to the challenge.

Priority number one was feeding the people who were suddenly jobless and hungry and were turning to Catholic Charities in record numbers soup kitchens for help.

Beyond dealing with the surging demand for meals and take-home groceries, Donoghue had to contend with the loss of the hundreds of volunteers who could no longer safely work at the nutrition sites. Many were elderly or semi-retired and at greatest risk for complications from the virus—which put incredible demand on the small professional staff.

The staff also had to deal with the challenge of moving all food serving operations outside in order to protect guests and observe appropriate social distancing with the long lines that were forming.

At the same time, many people were struggling with a depression and anxiety that escalated into the need for counseling and behavioral health services. Many poor and working families in particular had nowhere else to turn and relied on Catholic Charities, the largest private service agency in Fairfield County, for professional health, he said.

Donoghue, a Dartmouth graduate and parishioner of St. Thomas More Parish in Darien, said he has witnessed first-hand how tough the pandemic has been on the people least able to protect themselves and their children. Many are service workers who immediately lost their jobs in restaurants, hotels, and domestic settings. Some had to make the choice between paying rent or buying food.

He said the hardest hit group has been recent immigrants—many of whom are Catholics and members of parishes in Bridgeport, Stamford, Norwalk and Danbury. They pay taxes but do not qualify for many government service and as a result are very vulnerable

Holding it all together has been a staff of 130 people at work in 30 programs throughout Fairfield County, and Donoghue said he is incredibly proud of the work done being done by his staff under difficult conditions.

“We have a small but really dedicated team of employees at these facilities and they’ve been incredible. They’ve been running into the fire every day since pandemic started. While we were sequestered at home tying to be safe, they’ve put themselves at risk show up every day to feed the homeless, deliver meals to seniors, reach people on the streets through our Homeless outreach team and provide case management and housing service.”

Although the challenges are historic, Donoghue said he has been sustained by the commitment of his staff to mission and the generosity of donors at all levels.

For example, many volunteers who could no longer safely work in the soup kitchens began making sandwiches and preparing food at home, which they could safely drop off at lunch time. And parishes came to the rescue by conducting their own food drives and partnering with Catholic Charities to feed the hungry.

Donoghue said that he has been overwhelmed by the generosity of large and small donors who have stepped up with direct financial support and by giving to the Annual Catholic Appeal (ACA). While the pandemic taken a bite out of traditional fund raisers, the agency has been creative with virtual events and has also benefitted from contributions that have significantly helped to narrow what he feared would be a $2 million budget gap in the crisis.

Donoghue said he’s grateful to all those who have supported the work of Catholic Charities, and he believes that many people across the diocese would be pleased to know how much good work is done in the name of the Catholic Church.

“It’s a collaborative effort  by a tremendous number of people. Certainly Catholics around the diocese should be proud of our work—a lot of people of all faiths working together for one purpose to help the least of our brothers and sisters through a really difficult time.”

By Brian D. Wallace

Mike Donoghue on Catholic Charities:

Concerns Going forward:
“Cold weather, keeping employees and clients safe…and finding the funding to provide services. People have been generous but COVID-19 is not over—the needs are greater than ever.

The great un-equalizer:
“Fairfield County is a place of have and have-nots. We’re number one in the U.S in terms of income inequality and unfortunately COVID has been the great un-equalizer. People on the high end are doing fine economically and could just move home to work. Our staff is feeding people on the front line, risking their lives and health every day to do essential work.”

Heartwarming response:
“It has been heart-warming from my position to see goodness of so many people at times of crisis like this. It’s a beautiful thing to see how incredibly generous so many individuals and parishes.
In fact, people of other faiths have also stepped up and we’ve received help in so many different ways.”

“What has really helped me get through the last year has been having my wife Cece with me, by my side, seven days a week, working as a volunteer right alongside me. She also chairs the Order of Malta in Connecticut and they have stepped up to partner with us in feeding the poor.

I’m also grateful to the staff and to my predecessor Al Barber who is now chairing Foundations in Charity. Al is always ready to roll up his sleeves and help.”