$7.3M grant enables Catholic Charities to expand into more counties

Judy Orr

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Nashville has received a $7.3 million grant from the State of Tennessee, one of the largest grants in Catholic Charities’ history, to expand services into additional Middle Tennessee counties. 

The new program, called “Tennessee Serves Neighbors,” will create new family resource centers in 10 counties over the next two years.

“We are grateful to Gov. Bill Lee and the Department of Human Services for the opportunity to expand family resource centers in counties where these services are needed most,” said Catholic Charities Executive Director Judy K. Orr. “’Serving our neighbors’ is a core principle in the Catholic Charities’ mission statement and the foundation of the work we do every day.”

Catholic Charities expects to initially add services in five counties: Montgomery, Maury, Marshall, Bedford and Coffee. The program will later expand to add Grundy, Warren, White, Dekalb and Putnam counties. 

DHS and Catholic Charities collaborated to identify counties with high levels of poverty and of reliance on free or reduced school lunches, where Catholic Charities is likely to have immediate impact. 

As the social service arm of the Diocese of Nashville, Catholic Charities had been looking for ways to expand its reach into more of the 38 counties in Middle Tennessee that make up the diocese. The grant funding will help tremendously with that, said Orr. “We’re just starting to understand how impactful this can be,” she said. 

During his first year as leader of the Diocese of Nashville in 2018, Bishop J. Mark Spalding visited every parish and school in the diocese, learning about their gifts and assessing their needs. 

“He’s the one that really planted the seed in my mind” to pursue ways to increase Catholic Charities’ services in more areas outside of Davidson County, Orr said. The “Tennessee Serves Neighbors” program “brings his vision to fruition,” she said.

“Catholic Charities acts in the spirit of Christ, recognizing the dignity of all people and serving our neighbors,” Bishop Spalding said. “I’m grateful that this funding will enable Catholic Charities to serve our neighbors in need in more counties throughout Middle Tennessee. Through this effort, families will be supported and find new ways to flourish.”

Strengthening families

The funding for the new “Tennessee Serves Neighbors” program is provided by the Tennessee Department of Human Services as part of its nationally recognized “Two-Generation” approach to helping families. Each 2Gen grant is funded by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) federal program. 

“The Two-Generation approach is a critical part of how we’re building strong families in Tennessee and I’m looking forward to expanding those efforts with Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville,” said outgoing Tennessee Department of Human Services Commissioner Danielle W. Barnes. “These family resource centers will provide essential wrap-around services that parents and children need to thrive.”

It was reported last year that the state of Tennessee was holding onto a surplus of $732 million in federal TANF funding that they had not disbursed to needy families or social service agencies. Now, nonprofit organizations across the state like Catholic Charites are receiving some of that money through grants, to help needy families achieve self-sufficiency.

“States are given latitude” in how to spend the money that comes from TANF, Orr said. 

For example, she said, “in rural counties we know drug addiction has been a plague, and it tears families apart.” If Catholic Charities could provide counselors and programming to stabilize, strengthen, and keep families together, that could fit well within the grant guidelines. 

Job training and financial literacy education will likely be part of the counseling and programming services included in the “Tennessee Serves Neighbors,” programming, Orr said. 

Creating jobs

The grant money will enable Catholic Charities to immediately hire three new employees. The first will be the County Program Expansion Director who will work solely with the Tennessee Serves Neighbors program. The other two positions, a Human Resources manager, and a Volunteer and Student-Intern Manager, will work with the new grant-funded program and with departments across the Catholic Charities organization. 

“This will create more structure for our HR operations, which needs to happen as a requirement of the grant,” Orr said. The Volunteer Manager position will “give us something more structured to vet anyone who volunteers,” she added, and will relieve the program managers in different departments from that duty. “For the first time in the organization’s history, we’ll have a formalized volunteer corps across the entire agency,” she said. 

Each county served by the “Tennessee Serves Neighbors” program will have a four-member core team, and the exact makeup of each county team will depend upon the highest needs identified early in the process.

When the program is fully implemented, it could provide employment opportunities for dozens of people. “I am thrilled that many of the new employees we expect to hire, which could be as many as 60 people, will live and work in the communities they serve,” said Orr. “This is an important part of our community-based approach, which recognizes the unique needs of the clients we help.”

Catholic Charities’ grant funding period officially began on Oct. 1. The first phase of the program includes making the initial new hires, which Orr hopes to have in place by the end of November or early December.

Partnerships are key

The full slate of programming and spaces in which to offer services is still a work in progress, Orr said. “We want to understand that community, what they have and what they don’t have. We want to tap into existing knowledge in these communities.”

Much like the family resource centers in Nashville that Catholic Charities manages at the McGruder Center and at Casa Azafran, the sites of the 10 new family resource centers will be in central locations and offer a range of services for multi-generational clients, providing both a safety net for families in crisis and enhanced services that foster independence from government support.

When establishing a presence in new communities and scouting locations for the new family resource centers, “We’ll look for a location where people gather,” Orr said. That might mean, for example, renting office space in a strip mall near a Dollar General, if that’s the primary place people shop in a community, she said. “We want to be where the people are and make it convenient for them to get to us.”

Partnerships will be key to making the program successful, Orr said. Catholic Charities’ grant application focused on its ability to leverage the large Catholic parish network to provide volunteers and family mentors. Well-organized parish-based groups like the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Knights of Columbus will be key allies, Orr said. “We know a lot of parishes have robust volunteer networks. We look forward to joining forces with parishes in these areas,” Orr said. 

“We know there are people who want to help their neighbors,” she said. 

Parishes located in the first five counties where “Tennessee Serves Neighbors” will have a presence are: St. William/San Guillermo in Bedford County, St. Paul the Apostle and St. Mark in Coffee County, St. John the Evangelist in Marshall County, St. Catherine in Maury County, and Immaculate Conception in Montgomery County. 

Catholic Charities also looks forward to partnering with health care providers and university students to “amplify the impact” of the grant, Orr said. “Tennessee Serves Neighbors” can provide vital training opportunities for college and university master’s level students, such as the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, to work in the social services field through experiential internships.

‘Impeccable reputation’

Orr anticipates that the initial grant funding of two years will be expanded. “We have a strong track record with the state, and an impeccable reputation for compliance,” she said, pointing in particular to Catholic Charities’ administration of the Tennessee Office for Refugees program. 

Outside of the government, Catholic Charities is the largest provider of social services in Middle Tennessee. With a 58-year history and such a broad scope of services – offering free hot meals to the community three days a week, counseling to individuals and families, assisting refugees as they resettle in a new country, conducting home studies for adoptive families, working to prevent family homelessness, overseeing job training programs – Catholic Charities doesn’t have a niche focus like many other local non-profits.

Now, Catholic Charities is poised to expand its services to even more Tennesseans, and that could grow in the future to cover the entire state. “The roadmap from ‘Tennessee Serves Neighbors’ could easily expand to the Catholic Charities agencies serving East and West Tennessee,” Orr said.