By Krystin Gollihue
Too often we hear stories of nonprofits who set out dreaming big, only to fail at achieving such unrealistic goals. But the issues we face are simply that: big and complex. How can a small operation make the kinds of societal changes their communities, funders, and supporters ask of them? How can a place like Catherine’s House, a small transitional housing facility in Belmont, North Carolina, make such a lasting impact on its residents? Though Catherine’s House is small, they truly understand their role as a “micro” organization – a small facility that understands the very specific structures its residents need to transition out of homelessness and into a better, more sustainable life.
In 1992, the Sisters of Mercy founded Catherine’s House on the grounds of the former Sacred Heart College in Belmont, North Carolina. The residential facility was named after Sister Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, whose desire and devotion to helping people in need has been the guiding principle for Catherine’s House for 25 years. The organization specifically focuses on providing transitional housing for women and women and children who would otherwise suffer from homelessness.
The facility provides save housing and services for self-sufficiency to up to 14 women and 10 children. While residents only stay at Catherine’s House for 4 months, Jane Cacchione, Director of Development, says that they “feel a sense of ownership of where they are.” Through a one-on-one case management process, residents learn about financial literacy, time management, problem solving, and personal wellness. The facility has an on-site Community Resource Room where residents can find out about housing, employment, and use computers to help meet their Program Plan goals. Catherine’s House also provides parenting support, group counseling, stress management training, social activities for residents, and more. Through partnerships with the local YMCA, the Belmont Community Organization, Dress for Success, the YWCA and more, the organization is able to provide services like clothing, gym memberships, and more to help residents imagine and practice a life outside of homelessness.
Catherine’s House’s ethic of unconditional love gets carried out through this case management process, says Program Director Sheila Purello. Because the facility can only house a small number of people, staff and residents know each other on a personal level. “Our organizational culture is that we hug each other, we respect each other for our individual differences and strengths,” Sheila says. Staff work so closely with residents to understand their needs and develop structure and predictability in order to reach their goals that there is a constant awareness of whether someone’s had a good day or bad day, whether they need support or are doing well.
“We’re not trying to make those decisions for them,” Sheila notes. “Those decisions, they can make for themselves. But we are providing structure and predictability so that they can learn what they need to be accountable for.” Jane adds, “Following the rules of the house is one small piece of reaping the benefits.” “Sometimes, people aren’t participating, or they might start to lose focus. They might not be able to get out of their own way to pursue their own goals, and might be getting in others’ ways, too” says Sheila. “That’s when we have the ability to nudge them back to using the resources they themselves have chosen to build into their plan.”
Though the facility provides the same thing to everyone – a place to stay and resources to use – how that structure fits into residents’ goals varies on an individual basis. The issue, Sheila continues, is how to create a structure that is both the same and different for each resident, and it involves having the right scale. Jane adds, “How does the structure meet up against those people you’re trying to help? For us, knowing people by name isn’t possible with more than fourteen people. Being able to support their individual plans isn’t possible. More residents takes away the flexible service and personal relationships that we provide and that helps people move out of poverty.”
Even for the short time that residents stay at Catherine’s House, it is these relationships that carry them from one step of life to the next. Residents are able to build a support system and an action plan that lasts. “We’re not trying to solve everybody’s problems,” Sheila says. “We don’t expect in 4 months for people to move ahead in big ways, but if they can move from crisis to stability, we consider that a success.” That success has to do with understanding how residents’ needs meet up with the structures that Catherine’s House has to provide. By keeping the scale manageable, they are able to provide the kind of lasting structure, support, and resources that residents need in order to move forward.
Sheila Purello grew up in the suburbs of New York City. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Bowdoin College and her Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan. She has worked in the social service field for over 25 years, combining both direct service and management responsibilities in a variety of settings. She has directed accreditation, training, and quality improvement efforts for a multi-million dollar non-profit, provided care planning in a long term care facility, guided after school programs, and coordinated resources and volunteers for a breakfast kitchen serving people experiencing homelessness. As the Program Director for Catherine’s House, she oversees admissions, provides case management, and arranges programming to develop self-sufficiency among the facility residents. She has welcomed each of her past and current roles as an opportunity to serve and empower people who have too often been marginalized by society. When not at work, Sheila enjoys reading, baking, volunteering with her church, and watching movies with her family.
Jane Cacchione is a home grown North Carolina girl, born and raised! She completed her education here and began her career in the for-profit world before landing a position with the YMCA of Greater Charlotte that would change her life! The idea of putting someone’s needs ahead of your own became her passion. With encouragement from friends and family, Jane remains committed to a career where she can make a difference in the lives of others. Non-profits, by virtue of their missions, are a perfect place to fuel that passion. Jane currently serves as the Director of Development at Catherine’s House, an organization providing transitional housing for women and children who are homeless. Catherine’s House is located in Belmont, NC and is celebrating 25 years of service to the community. In her free time, Jane loves to ride a bike, hike the local trails and SUP when the water is warm!
Krystin Gollihue is a PhD Candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric & Digital Media program at NC State University