As Catholic Charities Hawai‘i celebrates its 75th anniversary, it continues to serve as a beacon of hope for the state’s most vulnerable populations — proof that the miraculous really does happen.
When you’re in the line of work that Robert “Rob” Van Tassell is, you’re never really off the clock. Just the other day, someone tapped him on the shoulder when he was waiting in line at a grocery store. The shopper had recognized the logo on his T-shirt and felt compelled to share how Catholic Charities Hawai‘i had been a lifesaver.
Believe it or not, this is a common occurrence — and not just for the president and CEO. It happened to vice president of philanthropy Mary Leong Saunders at a Waikīkī hotel a couple of weeks back.
“The woman said, ‘I want to introduce myself. I have worked in the hotel industry for over 20 years. When I lost my job during the pandemic, we received rent relief from Catholic Charities and that kept me housed — just to get me through until I could come back to work,’” recalls Leong Saunders.
“You don’t even realize all of the lives you touch because there are so many,” she continues. “Having people come up to you and say things like that is an incredible experience. It solidifies that the work we’re doing is impactful.”
While the nonprofit reaches anywhere between 40,000 and 80,000 people annually, statistically speaking, Van Tassell, Leong Saunders and the rest of the staff who make up the committed team at Catholic Charities Hawai‘i are in for quite a few more heartfelt interruptions.
Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the nonprofit, which has offices on Hawai‘i Island, Maui, O‘ahu and Kaua‘i, has carried out its mission of providing social services for the people of the state — regardless of their background or religion — each and every day since 1947.
“Jesus never questioned anybody about their faith. That was never important,” says Van Tassell. “We see somebody in need, and we serve them. I think it’s about what Saint Francis said, ‘Preach often and use words when necessary.’ Our work speaks for our faith and our faith shapes our work.”
Van Tassell, who came on board in 2019, previously worked in the affordable housing sector in Seattle. When he first heard of the opportunity, he made an effort to learn what Hawai‘i is all about, starting with one word in particular.
“I looked up the word ‘aloha,’” he says. “I love that it was codified here in the state. That meant a lot to me. I saw the similarities between the spirit of aloha and the values of Catholic social teaching, and the values of this organization fit in so well with that.”
While Catholic Charities Hawai‘i is proud to offer more than 40 social service programs across the island chain today, this milestone serves as the perfect time to honor its humble beginnings.
It all started in 1859 when the Catholic Women’s Guild provided food, clothes and medical aid to immigrant plantation workers. Decades later, the association was reorganized by Bishop James Sweeney, who, after seeing that Hawai‘i was in dire need of social services following World War II, knew just the ones to call. The Maryknoll Sisters, a group of New York women who exemplified their faith by devoting their lives to others, arrived and, thus, Catholic Charities Hawai‘i was born.
“The Maryknoll Sisters’ primary emphasis was putting their faith into action. I think that tradition, that legacy, still lives with us today as we see the work we do and the passion that people have,” shares Van Tassell.
The sisters must have been heaven-sent, as they immediately got to work at local parishes until they secured their first “home,” as vice president of mission integration Tina Andrade puts it, on Honolulu’s South Vineyard Street in 1965.
Going wherever there was a need, the organization put its focus on senior citizens in the ’70s following the Older Americans Act. Services included transportation, counseling and case management to ensure that kūpuna were able to live independently and stay engaged with the community. Those years also saw a lot of political unrest, and so the nonprofit created an extensive immigration and refugee program to help those affected adapt to a new life.
“We partnered with parishes who adopted families to take them in and help them get adjusted, and many of them are successful business owners today, having learned a second language and were reunited with their families,” says Andrade.
The ’80s, meanwhile, were centered around helping individuals and families to evade homelessness, as well as assisting those already affected.
“A lot of people were calling us looking for help for rent and utilities because it was already becoming difficult then,” says Andrade. “When I think about that, I realize it’s been a long time that we’ve been dealing with homelessness and housing.”
The ’90s brought more specialized programs, including for those affected by domestic violence, babies with complex medical issues, expectant mothers with nowhere to go and child welfare. Providing care for these often-overlooked and vulnerable populations is at the heart of what Catholic Charities Hawai‘i is all about.
“We serve the little niches of the community that are high-risk and that other people aren’t really providing services for,” says Leong Saunders. “But everything we do is because the need is there.”
In the latter half of the decade, Catholic Charities Housing Development Corp. was formed, which allowed the organization to build homes from the ground up to provide residents with a stable place to live.
“We wanted to make sure there was affordable housing that was safe, dignified and that people could afford to stay in Hawai‘i,” says Andrade, who adds that, in the next year, the organization will have built nearly 700 units on O‘ahu and Maui.
Fast-forward to when the pandemic hit and everything — people and entities alike — were forced to evolve. Some struggled to find their place in the current state of the world, but this was nothing new to Catholic Charities Hawai‘i, which had been doing that for 75 years.
“We’ve always looked at what the emerging needs were at the time,” says Leong Saunders. “What we did 75 years ago is not what we’re doing now, and what we did 10 years ago probably looks a little bit different, too. Even though we have our core values, when things change and the needs of the community change, we have to change with it.”
Through its rental assistance program, Catholic Charities Hawai‘i rolled out more than $120 million to thousands of local residents who were financially impacted during the pandemic. They had to double their staff and it was all hands on deck, as Leong Saunders remembers it.
“We all jumped in and participated, even the executive management team,” she says. “I was answering all of the questions that were coming through our website, and that isn’t something that the VP of philanthropy would normally do. It was a lot of work … but it felt really good to be a part of it.”
The majority of these programs of the past are still in full swing today (and not one was lost to the pandemic). But the organization is always looking toward the future, prepared for whatever may come its way. Proceeds from its 75th anniversary gala, for example, will benefit senior services, West O‘ahu outreach and foster youth programs.
“We want to be around for another 75 years,” says Leong Saunders. “I would love to work myself out of job, which means there’s no longer a need for social services, but I think that people will always have a need in different periods of their lives for a hand up. That’s something that Catholic Charities has been able to provide for 75 years.”
Van Tassell adds, “We all look forward to being together and celebrating as we carve out our path for the next 75 years,” he says. “There’s a lot of hope. If I could summarize it in one word for us, it’s hope. We’re a community of hope sharing hope with others — and will continue to do that.”
They say if you love what you do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Van Tassell and his staff are evidence of that sentiment, and, given the chance, they probably wouldn’t want to be off the clock anyway, when serving the people of Hawai‘i is what they love to do.
Catholic Charities Hawai‘i’s breadth of programs cover housing and homelessness, ku¯puna, mental health, family and youthand more. Its offices are located at 62 Kino‘ole St. in Hilo and 73-5618 Maiau St. Ste. B201 in Kailua-Kona. For more information, visit: catholiccharitieshawaii.org