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Volunteer experiences divert Rob McCann to Catholic Charities

Catholic Charities executive director Rob McCann facetiously says his life was “ruined” by volunteer experiences with campus ministry and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC).

He went to college thinking he would go to law school and be an attorney in New York City like others in his family.

Rob McCann

His plans were diverted by volunteer work through campus ministry at local shelters and a two-month summer program with Jesuit Social Services in Ecuador, and by his involvement with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps both teaching migrant kindergarten children in Woodburn, Ore., and doing community outreach in Torreon, Mexico, and East Los Angeles.

By “ruined,” he means “transformed.”

“It’s easy to live life and not know how others live, but once you become aware of people who live in poverty, suffer and lack basic human dignity, it changes how you look at life,” he said.  “Once you have that moment, you can choose to ignore what it means or to be part of the solution.”

His choice to be part of the solution meant that in September 2005, he succeeded Donna Hanson, who was executive director of Catholic Charities in Spokane for 27 years and who mentored him in his work as associate director since 2000.

In his new role, he fosters opportunities for volunteers—based on their comfort levels and skills—at House of Charity, St. Margaret’s Shelter, St. Anne’s Child and Family Center, and 62 other Catholic Charities’ programs in Eastern Washington. Perhaps he helps disrupt and transform some other lives, changing people and their outlooks.

After graduating from Fairfield University in Connecticut in 1991 with a degree in American studies and political science, Rob spent two years with the JVC.

“I had opportunities to see how the rest of the world lives and felt I needed to do something about it,” he said.

His first step was to earn a master’s degree in organizational leadership at Gonzaga in 1995.  Then, while he was young, single and could fit all his belongings into the back of a car, he wanted overseas experience.

For several years, he was a program evaluator with the Catholic Relief Services’ Harvest of Hope Program, traveling to 31 countries—including Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo.

Catholic Relief Services is an international disaster relief and development agency, serving some of the most poverty-stricken areas of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.

In 1997 in India, he worked with and learned from Mother Teresa.

Through CRS, he visited agricultural programs, mother-child programs, health programs, refugee camps, water projects and other programs. Along with tips for success for each country program he visited, Rob developed a list of the top 10 mistakes learned in other countries.  He reported back to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and  CRS headquarters in Baltimore.

“I saw similar programs in different countries,” he said.  “In Sudan, I might share with local staff how an Angolan community does a water project.  Knowing what worked elsewhere helped people gain expertise.”

Rob went as a colleague, recognizing also that every country and culture does programs in different ways, and evaluating programs in light of the culture.

“What works in the mother-child program in Cambodia might not work in Senegal because of different family traditions, expectations, languages and tribal dynamics,” he said.

In Spokane, Rob also deals with the diverse cultures of chronically mentally ill people or children from families of different cultures.

Donna hired him in 2000 as associate director to oversee construction of two new homeless shelters and St. Anne’s Children and Family Center.

While working at Catholic Charities in Spokane, he completed a doctoral degree in leadership studies at Gonzaga University in 2004.  He met and married his wife, Rachel, in 2001.  They now have a one-year-old son, Timothy James.

As associate director, he would oversee programs, write grants, secure accreditation and do many other tasks, mentored by Donna.

“I learned the nuts-and-bolts details of how programs ran from the ‘global’ perspective of seeing the picture of the  overall organization,” he said.

“Catholic Charities focuses on the core values of respect, compassion, collaboration and justice.  Those words are visible in our facilities—the mission statements on the walls,” he said.  “We make decisions through these four lenses.  Volunteers and staff are to live these values, to walk the talk.”

Having grown up in a Catholic family with Catholic education from kindergarten through PhD, he said faith is a “big piece” of what he does at Catholic Charities.

Being Catholic, however, does not limit the scope of service, because service is provided based on “need not creed.”  About 85 percent of staff and of those served are not Catholic.

Rob says Catholic Charities looks at the core values of faith traditions.

“We look at the core values of the Catholic tradition, values shared by most other traditions—Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and other faiths, as well as other Christian,” he said, returning to the four basic values.

More than 90 years ago, Catholics in Eastern Washington wanted to respond to the poverty they saw.  Farmers, bankers and other business people started Catholic Charities in this diocese to do that, he said.

“We exist in their name to serve anyone in need as a nonprofit, faith-based organization operating on the core values of the Gospel,” Rob said. 

In accordance with a previous requirement for non-profits and faith-based organizations receiving federal, state or local funding, there is no evangelism component. 

“There are times evangelism is appropriate and times when it is not appropriate.  It is not appropriate in programs we run, programs based on the unconditional love of the Gospel, whether people accept Christ or don’t,” he said.

“If someone is hungry, cold or homeless, that person wants a meal, a blanket and warm shelter, not necessarily religion,” Rob said.

“Creed is the impetus for how and why we care, but it does not mandate who we serve.  My faith tradition led me into this work, allows me to process it and gives me passion to do it.

“In my read of Catholicism, we are called to serve people in need, if we are to walk the path Christ walked. I learned through Jesuit spirituality and the Jesuit motto of ‘contemplatives in action,’” he said. 

“Catholic Charities measures outcomes of its service of about 50,000 people a year based on their becoming more stable, healthier, happier and more self sufficient because of the programs.  Some will lead better lives.  Some may not, but we hope that all we serve will at least live in more dignity. 

“Some have slept at House of Charity for 20 years and may sleep there 20 more years—in dignity.  Some may be assisted to leave and become homeowners or move into stable housing.

“We meet people where they are, sit down with them and ask how they are doing and what they need.  Then we design a program of action and assistance for them,” Rob said.  “People have to be interested in bettering themselves.  Some are not ready and may need basic human respect before they will want to make changes in their lives.”

Parishes, women religious, Jesuits, other nonprofits, other denominations and faith communities partner with Catholic Charities.  The non-Catholic volunteer base has grown and the non-Catholic donor base has tripled.

“People know we reach all kinds of people,” Rob said.

“Like any nonprofit, we live year to year on city, state, federal, donor and grant funds.  We live on faith,” he said.  “Over our 90-year history, we have had years of ups and downs with changes in laws and grants.

“We are healthy, do good work and are accountable for funds donated, which inspires more giving,” he commented.

Beyond the current political talk of “faith-based initiatives,” Rob said the government has long channeled funds to serve the poor through Catholic Charities and similar organizations:  “Now it’s a buzz word and spin on what has been happening for years.

“Catholic Charities is the biggest social-service provider in the country.  Government funds are essential for us to do our job,” he said.  “We have respected, in receiving those funds, the original requirement of providing the services without overt evangelism.  We will not change our stance of serving all people, regardless of their religious beliefs.

“Everyone is a child of God and deserves unconditional love and dignity.  As a civilization, we will not be judged by the money in our banks, our technology or the number of skyscrapers, but by how we treat the weakest people among us,” he said.  “History judges a civilization by the quality of its relationships and how people act to end injustice.”

So along with helping people in need, Catholic Charities educates people so they are aware of and act on the relationship between Catholic social justice teachings and institutional injustice.  The Parish Social Services office does the education and advocacy piece with Catholic Relief Services.

Reflecting on the growing needs, Rob said Catholic Charities seeks to expand its capacity to respond.

Over his 15 years in social services, he has seen needs continue to grow. 

“I wish there were fewer homeless and hungry people.  Our goal should be to close programs for a lack of need,” he said.

Catholic Charities has about 8,000 volunteers, more every year.  It has 220 staff, compared to 63 five years ago.  The new staff fill roles in the new, expanded facilities for the House of Charity, St. Margaret’s and St. Anne’s, which have tripled the capacity of Catholic Charities to serve the region.

The House of Charity grew from 38 to 109 beds.  St. Margaret’s grew from room for four families to room for 18. The old St. Anne’s Child and Family Center served 18 children, and the new facility serves 200.

Catholic Charities has added more farm-worker housing in Othello and Pasco.  The agency also has 700 housing units for seniors and families throughout Eastern Washington. 

For information, call 358-4272 or visit