How to explain: $15 million grant to Catholic Charities for BP oil spill relief but the phasing out of Operation Helping Hands

Archbishop Gregory Aymond thanks John Davies, president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, for a $15 million grant to Catholic Charities to provide counseling, education, job training and direct assistance to needy families affected by the BP oil spill.

By Peter Finney Jr.

Admittedly, it’s a difficult situation to explain.

Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans received the largest single grant in its history last week – $15 million from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation – to help lead a consortium of area nonprofits that will aid South Louisiana families impacted by the 2010 BP oil spill.

Almost concurrently, Catholic Charities announced it would wind down Operation Helping Hands, the incredibly successful house-rebuilding ministry it established after Hurricane Katrina, by June 2012.

Some logically might ask: How can the “church” receive all that money and yet still close a home-rebuilding program that in the six years since Katrina has attracted 29,076 volunteers from around the country who have rebuilt 195 homes and gutted 1,983 others?

A look beyond the headlines is instructive.

First, the $15 million grant from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation is money specifically dedicated to providing mental health counseling, job training, education and direct assistance to families who either have yet to be helped by funds made available by BP or have seen those one-time funds not stretch far enough.

“I told Archbishop (Gregory) Aymond, ‘When people hear we got $15 million, they are going to think Catholic Charities has all the money. Your own priests are going to be saying that,'” said Gordon Wadge, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. “He told me, ‘Yes, we’ll just have to educate them.'”

Wadge said the 18-month grant – which essentially comes from funds provided by BP – is “purposed and dedicated.”

“That’s the way we live (at Catholic Charities),” Wadge said. “We’re always getting ministry monies to do certain things.”

But when the funding from a private foundation or governmental agency is exhausted, Catholic Charities must consider its overall mission in terms of fiscal responsibility.

Case in point: Operation Helping Hands. City and state funds had defrayed the cost of rebuilding materials for the program, but Wadge said those funds have dried up.

“The city is not going to announce until January whether it will give any more grants, and we have staff sitting because we don’t have materials,” Wadge said. “We’re stuck.”

In addition, city and state grants “never cover all the costs. They tell you they’re giving you this money, but you’ve got to come up with 20 percent (more) to match against it. Sometimes we’ve had to wait a year to be reimbursed. We’re floating cash all the time.”

Ultimately, Wadge said, Operation Helping Hands has done an incredible job putting people’s homes and lives back together, but it was never intended to be “a forever project.”

“It’s not a core ministry that we’ve historically done,” Wadge said. “We’ve always had a clock running on it. We’ve been talking about how we could spend down the Katrina monies.”

The final challenge has been a $2 million headache caused by the unwitting installation of  corrosive Chinese drywall in 41 homes that were rebuilt for elderly or disabled homeowners. Catholic Charities got the drywall from a trusted vendor, but as news reports have shown, chemicals in the material can cause serious damage to electrical wiring and appliances.

“We’re committed to taking care of those folks who have Chinese drywall,” Wadge said. “Thankfully, they’re small homes, but we’ve got to redo everything – replace appliances, the whole package.”

Over the next year, Catholic Charities will wind down Operation Helping Hands, which reduced its salaried workforce from 12 to five, and will not take on new clients. Catholic Charities will continue to work with Providence Community Housing, a Catholic housing initiative that has spurred the rebuilding of the Lafitte Housing Development and the surrounding Tremé neighborhood.

Seven new AmeriCorps volunteers arrived Sept. 6 and will work with Operation Helping Hands through June 2012.

“We have compiled some incredible statistics,” Wadge said. “It’s humbling because the Catholic Church has been the largest housing builder in New Orleans with Providence and the whole Tremé neighborhood. We’ve done so many things. But one of the things that gets lost is that we’ve had so many young volunteers come through here who have had life-converting changes. They’ve made significant life choices that are different from what they had done before.”


One response to “How to explain: $15 million grant to Catholic Charities for BP oil spill relief but the phasing out of Operation Helping Hands

  1. Very enlightening. Gives a needed understanding of the challenges faced by Catholic Charities as they fulfill their mission – creatively yet frustratingly hand-tied at times.

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