Catholic Charities’ Journey of Hope
When Helen Hansen, a Chicago social worker, journeyed to the Santa Clara Valley in 1955, she would have seen orchards but also a booming suburban community on the southern edge of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Witnessing the doubling of the population, she addressed the challenges of foster youth, youth in the juvenile justice system, teen mothers, migrant farmworkers, hungry and isolated seniors, and families struggling with emotional challenges and poverty.
As the first executive secretary (the equivalent of today’s executive directors) of Catholic Social Services of San José, Hansen began the transformation of Catholic Charities from a small southern outpost of Catholic Social Services of San Francisco with an annual budget of $14,000. It has become Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, the social service and social justice arm of the Diocese of San José, with 450 staff annually serving more than 40,000 households in 90 locations and serving as a leading advocate for solutions to poverty.
Since its inception, the agency has provided multiple counseling and behavioral health services for individuals of all ages. In a 1995 history of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, Hansen reported, “I knew that in order to come along as a social service agency in Santa Clara County, we needed a strong family counseling program. The county’s population had doubled in 10 years!” These families, with the support of the extended family they left behind, needed advice and counseling. Today, integrating behavioral health with primary care, John XXIII Health Clinic is now staffed by Gardner Family Health in collaboration with Cathedral Social Ministries.
Hearing the needs of seniors and people with disabilities in the 1960s, the agency launched multiple programs serving and feeding seniors. In addition, the John XXIII Multiservice Center, Eastside Neighborhood Center, and Adult Day Care centers were developed. Hansen lobbied Congress for funding for meals for seniors. “I told Senator (Alan) Cranston that we had to have a nutrition program so seniors could stay independent in their homes. We became a voice for seniors.”
Seeing the needs of immigrants and refugees in the 1970s, the agency began teaching immigrant women, providing immigrant legal services, refugee resettlement, and refugee foster care.
It was Hansen and her staff who initiated many of the innovative social services serving the valley, including the Handicapable Program for the Disabled, the Foster Grandparent Program, matching seniors with special needs children, the Senior Meals Program, and the Resettlement Program, aiding recent refugees to this country.
Not one to rest, after retiring from Catholic Charities in 1983, after 28 years, Hansen continued as an active participant on numerous boards and commissions.
Through the years, Catholic Charities has engaged parishes and community groups to reduce situational poverty for immigrants, refugees, those released from jail, and people with mental illness through programs that provide support, employment, education, financial literacy, free tax assistance, matched savings accounts and entrepreneurship opportunities. Today, these advocacy and community engagement efforts coordinate with Disaster Response Services in providing food, rent, and accompaniment to communities affected by natural disasters and more recently, the pandemic, while advocating for housing and racial equity.
Hansen’s vision was that Catholic Charities would always serve the poor, whatever their need. That vision remains true today, and our journey of hope continues.
Gregory Kepferle is the chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County.