By Megan Erbacher
The Message assistant editor
Sharon Burns is thankful.
She’s thankful not only for meeting many people during her nearly eight years serving as executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Evansville but also because her heart and others’ hearts have transformed through the work.
“Most people think Charities is helping other people, and that’s the primary goal of being the outreach and face of parishioners in the community, but it also should be transformative of everyone’s hearts,” Burns said. “The people who get help, the people who give help, and then the parishioners, community members and donors who fund this have their hearts transformed. We really want them to understand the plight and have an open heart to the individuals who are suffering.”
Burns said that working at Catholic Charities has “challenged, changed and expanded” her heart for understanding and traveling the journey with the poor. It’s helping people get from point A to point B, she explained, where point B may look different for everybody.
“By learning about what our people struggle through and really listening to the individuals who come to us, it does begin to open your heart to why people make choices and understanding just who they are,” she said. “That has been the most beneficial, personally, to enhance my understanding and openness to who they are and the life journey they’ve had to this point that has brought them to us.”
Last month, Burns announced her decision to leave her position at Charities, effective Jan. 17. She accepted an opportunity to serve as the manager of a research and evaluation department for a Maryland-based nonprofit.
“The change will allow me to live and work in Evansville while offering more flexibility to spend time enjoying family, friends and several hobbies. … (And) I’m always looking forward to learning new things.”
Bishop Joseph M. Siegel expressed his gratitude for the leadership Burns provided Charities.
“With her compassion, professionalism and creativity, she has mobilized our dedicated Catholic Charities staff and our parishes in helping provide services and hope to countless people in Southwest Indiana,” Bishop Siegel said. “I pray the Lord may continue to bless her for her efforts and I wish her the best as she begins a new chapter in her life and career."
Diocese of Evansville Chancellor Tim McGuire thanked Burns for her faithful service and commended her and the Charities staff for the development of new programs while also enhancing core services.
Services offered at Charities include outpatient family and life counseling, immigration legal services, emergency financial assistance, as well as job and life skills training.
Burns stressed accomplishments during her tenure were team efforts, and included:
- A reduction in direct one-time assistance with a goal to engage clients as partners in their journey. Burns explained the goal is to focus more on solving underlying, systemic problems or issues to help change the course of their life for longer than just one-time help.
- A fourth outpatient mental health counselor was hired. Three of the counselors are trauma trained, which Burns said is critical moving forward because many clients have trauma preventing them from reaching their full potential.
- Job training and life skills training: The neighbor-to-neighbor program was revamped, and a key addition is the Handy Helpers Home Repair program. It launched in fall 2018 after about three years of planning and is in the fifth cohort of tech crews.
- Staffing was reallocated with a reduction in support staff but an increase in program staff.
- Strengthened relationships with outlying areas have allowed the opportunity for low-incoming housing in Vincennes; as well as outpatient counseling in Washington with hopes to expand into other areas.
“I’m proud of a lot of what we’ve done, but I need to be clear, it’s been the team who has gotten it done,” Burns said. “The team includes me, staff members and board of advisors who have been very thoughtful and strategic about their planning and where we’re going, and support of diocesan leadership including Tim McGuire and the bishops during my tenure.”
Another milestone – for the first time in the nonprofit’s 83 years of operation it will have a new, permanent space of its own at 2121 Stringtown Road on Evansville’s North Side, on the property of the former St. Theresa Parish.
“From a very basic point financially, it will save us about half of our occupancy costs,” Burns said. “More importantly, it takes Catholic Charities out of the hidden sphere and it puts us in a neighborhood with a very clear presence, which really cements your place as a community collaborator in helping the vulnerable population.”
The 9,800-square-foot building will have 20 offices and three large meeting spaces, as well as an outdoor garden honoring St. Theresa. The space will allow Charities to offer more classes simultaneously as well as offer a community space for collaborative meetings and gatherings for agencies and community members.
The plan is to move-in this summer.
There are many memories Burns said stick out from her time with Charities, including the “wonderful staff” and numerous client success stories.
“Not by the world’s definition of success, but the idea a client got a job, while one earned their citizenship and another got their GED,” she said. “It’s just heartwarming when you see these major strides in life being accomplished by your clients.”