By PRISCILLA GREEAR,Staff Writer | Published January 19, 2006
Sandra Hollett will leave the helm of Catholic Social Services on Jan. 31 with a sense of peace at having led the nonprofit from “crisis to accreditation” and through an expansion of services, most recently a new emergency relief program for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
Hollett has submitted her resignation as executive director of CSS, effective at the end of the month, citing the need to be closer to her aging parents who live in Tennessee, along with siblings, and the need to “step aside in order for the organization to grow and to thrive.”
She will become the chief executive officer of the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults in Chattanooga, an organization about double the size of CSS which provides professional counseling, crisis intervention, and educational and prevention services. She says it’s a good fit as, outside of serving refugees and immigrants, her other passion is serving women and children.
Hollett spoke softly in an interview in her office Jan. 17 with a sense of love and gratitude tinged with sadness about her time at CSS and the difficult decision to leave her second “family.” She also got married while in Atlanta to retired fireman John Corbett, whom she had dated back in Maine, where she worked from 1994 to 2001 as director of Catholic Charities.
CSS has a broad array of services to all persons in need, regardless of creed, including outreach centers to Hispanics, adoption, pregnancy and parenting services, a low-cost immigration legal clinic, refugee resettlement services, and parish and community ministry. The executive director came in 2001 to CSS and indeed stabilized the nonprofit during a time of crisis.
“I’ve taken the agency from crisis to accreditation. It’s been a wonderful learning experience, and my own personal faith has deepened as a result of this experience. I witnessed the true ministry of CSS that happens here every day and is happening now with the Katrina evacuees because of the commitment of the staff and leadership team. It just feels like the right time for me to take everything I’ve learned here and move to a new organization with potential and new challenges.”
Hollett, who converted to Catholicism at 19, believes the organization embodies the Gospel call to live in solidarity with all God’s children.
“I truly love the mission of CSS, and I love the work we do here. I love the ministry we all experience here, and it’s not just ministry to our clients. We minister to each other, and we provide a witness to many non-Catholics about the Catholic Church’s compassion and solidarity. We are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.”
Her office reflects that love, including a photo of a newborn on one wall with a quotation from Blessed Mother Teresa: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” A colorful wooden crucifix and image of Mary hang by her desk, and on the opposite wall is a framed proclamation from the governor naming her last year as a member of the Georgia Composite Board of Professional Counselors, Social Workers and Marriage and Family Therapists. Pope Paul VI’s quotation “If you want peace work for justice” is on a sign and a small stone on her desk reads, “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
Hollett brought to her desk a straw basket overflowing with thank-you notes to CSS. She pulled out one note on a card with roses reading, “I want to thank you with all my heart for all you did to make sure me and the children had a wonderful Christmas. I was so worried, and you took the trouble and went out of your way to make sure these children had a wonderful Christmas. … You … are truly angels and have a special place in heaven for all you have done for so many people.”
When Hollett came in 2001, CSS had undergone extensive media scrutiny that revealed its Migration and Refugee Services program was resettling refugees in a substandard apartment complex with deplorable conditions and that the program director had an undisclosed financial connection to another one of the complexes, creating a conflict of interest. This sparked the archdiocese to reexamine the approach it took to handling refugees. Both the refugee program director and CSS executive director resigned in October 2000. The executive director position was vacant for six months, and morale was low.
Hollett oversaw the restructuring of the refugee program to improve efficiency and believes that it is now “in a very strong position,” serving 146 refugees last fiscal year while many resettlement programs around the country have closed since the federal government dramatically reduced the number of refugees admitted to the country following 9/11.
As she became acclimated at CSS she found some very good programs and committed staff but a need for more structure. “There were a lot of things I discovered in my first six months that were not revealed to me prior to coming. … In those first six months I witnessed many moments of grace when it was so clear to me God was blessing us with either a new grant or the right solution or a new direction that we should go in, and it helped build everybody’s faith as well as our teamwork. When you go through an experience where everybody is struggling and working toward the same goal, that bonds you.”
She also recruited a new board of directors. But there was much more change to take place. The organization lacked standardized, written policies and procedures. So she led the staff and organization in its work to become accredited by the Council on Accreditation, which exists to improve the delivery of social services by developing, applying and promoting high quality standards for agencies, ensuring consistent, high quality care. CSS achieved accreditation in 2005 after three years of arduous preparation and on-site evaluation, writing over 600 policies and procedures, and a lot of staff training.
“While that may feel just like paperwork, what it gives is a backbone, the infrastructure, so that new employees and staff that need to be refreshed know this is how we do things. It provides a standard and consistent service delivery,” Hollett said.
In an interview last year, Hollett said that the agency with accreditation can move beyond any worry that what happened with the refugee program will be repeated.
“Clients have several opportunities to voice a concern or complaint,” she said, with case managers working closely with clients. “They don’t have to go to the press or their parish priest. They can bring their issues directly to CSS, and they are guaranteed we will take the issue seriously.”
She’s grateful to have had a very strong, client-focused staff with which to gain accreditation and build the agency together. “We have a fabulous, competent, master’s degree-prepared management team who are committed to the mission of CSS and to maintaining the quality we’ve established here.”
After the final accreditation visit, the staff held a party where they crowned Hollett “the empress of excellence and queen of quality.”
CSS associate director Joseph Galvin called her “a strong, focused leader but also very, very compassionate” and the best boss he’s ever had, able to lead and guide while also giving him and others the autonomy and trust they needed to do their jobs.
“She has not shied away from some real challenges. … (The accreditation) is really what we needed to regain credibility both locally and nationally. And that’s something that she took on herself, which was a huge project and an enormous commitment, but she had the foresight to recognize it’s something we needed to do,” he said. “It’s been really moving us into a professional social service agency. We’ve retained our Catholic identity and spiritual mission and at the same time raised the quality of standards that we provide across the board, which is something that was very important. (It is) a responsibility to all the people who support us throughout the archdiocese and to the people we serve, that we can ensure the level of quality.”
He noted that in selecting board members she picked a wide variety of persons who represent the various parts of the North Georgia archdiocese. He said the board has about 20 members now and continues to grow.
“She made a concerted effort when she developed that board that it would truly represent the people we serve,” he continued. “We know that losing her is going to be huge for us. … We’re trying to figure out how to manage that transition well and stay focused … but she’s created a very strong management team and board of directors.”
Other areas of development have included the addition of a sixth CSS outreach center in Dalton in 2004 to serve the Hispanic population there and a doubling of the number of adoptions last year through the Pregnancy, Parenting and Adoption program. A new housing counseling program was developed, and the Village of St. Joseph program for adolescents was merged with the CSS counseling program. It is now called Village of St. Joseph Counseling Services and is located on North Druid Hills Road. The agency celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003. They won a grant for their Parent Talk program to support vulnerable mothers with newborns. They’ve served some 1,500 Katrina evacuee households, largely by resettling families into apartments and assisting with employment searches and financial aid, from which has developed a new emergency relief services program. The overall budget has grown from $3.9 million to $4.6 million.
Hollett said that all the programs, but particularly Hispanic outreach centers, have “great potential to grow” in the coming years and that CSS has already developed a strategic development plan.
She said the financial growth numbers “represent services to people and families who might not have gotten it any other way but through CSS.”
CSS board chairman Mike Cote praised her not only for the accreditation work but also for increasing grant funding.
“She’s done a tremendous job in building a strong management team and, as well, a strong board, moving the agency forward, increasing money we have to support these most needy and vulnerable in the community. I think the loss of her leadership will be sorely felt,” he said.
Cote, chief executive officer of SecureWorks and a parishioner at St. Jude the Apostle Church in Atlanta, added that “on a personal level she is very spiritual and committed” to helping the most vulnerable.
Joe Krygiel, Secretary for Catholic Charities, of which CSS is a part, also expressed his gratitude “for her many contributions to Catholic Social Services.”
“Sandra leaves many friends in this agency and in the greater Atlanta nonprofit community,” he said. “I know her move to Chattanooga as CEO of The Partnership for Families, Children, and Adults will present her many opportunities to better the lives of families and children there, and it will also allow her to be close to her family. I wish her continued success and pray that God will continue to bless her work.”
Sheila Reynolds, program director of the Pregnancy, Parenting and Adoption program for three years and a CSS staffer for eight years, said that Hollett has helped her to become a better leader and more empowered.
She recalled one very challenging adoption situation where she had to work though a weekend and Hollett supported her and her team to deal with the adoptive family and resolve the difficult issues.
“She had such a good grasp of the mission of CSS, and she was able to articulate that in such a way that it brought clarity, and it brought direction, and it was empowering. You could literally see your progress with her leadership. … The heart of CSS is to serve those most in need and most vulnerable, and I think Sandra has articulated that and called us to embrace that mission,” she continued. “She’s advocated and really supported us in doing the work we do. … We’re going to really miss her. We are grateful that God allowed her to lead us for the last five years, and her leadership has made a tremendous difference within the agency and within our lives personally.”
Reynolds added that she is glad to serve increasing numbers of at-risk parents. “With the visibility and reputation of CSS, we are getting more and more referrals from the community to serve these moms in crisis, and I think that is what you saw this fiscal year.”
Hollett believes that over the next 50 years CSS can build on the progress it has already made.
“As Atlanta grows there will be many more opportunities for the Archdiocese of Atlanta to be a leader in our community in responding to the needs of the most vulnerable. And I just pray they build on this foundation and continue to follow where God would lead us.”