By: Dominique Johnson
Catholic Community Service with its 150 employees and over 200 volunteers serve Southeast Alaska senior, family and end of life care, as well many more services in 11 communities. The organization has come a long way from its humble beginnings 45 years ago, with a staff of 4 and the leadership of former Bishop Francis Hurley.
Pat Denny, the first director of CCS Juneau, recalls receiving a phone call in the early 70s from Bishop Hurley asking if she would be able to make a trip to Juneau to assess the need for social services in the diocese. Denny, who was working for Catholic Community Services of Seattle at the time, agreed to make the trip to Alaska after meeting with the bishop in Seattle.
Denny, along with her friend Barbara Fallon, who served as her secretary, trekked to Juneau in a Volkswagen station wagon. For six months Denny and Fallon visited communities in the Diocese of Juneau and found that there was a need in southeast for social services.
When Bishop Hurley and Pat Denny decided to move forward with CCS they were met with skepticism, “Six months, they said it wouldn’t last six months,” Denny said. She also said a state worker told them he had tried to put together a similar agency before, but it failed.
The early criticism didn’t stop Bishop Hurley and Denny. The bishop was able to receive a private grant and Kay Smith, regional manager for social services in Southeast, found a federal matching grant. With these funds CCS was able to start with a food program, which was the biggest need they saw from their six-month survey of the community. The food program began in Ketchikan, Angoon, Sitka, Hoonah and Juneau.
Two years after the food program began, Bishop Hurley invited the Sisters of the Presentation to Juneau to start a child care program in Juneau. The daycare, located in the old St. Ann’s Hospital, served children ages 3-5.
In the early days, CCS wasn’t very formal on how they decided which services to add next according to Denny, “Bishop (Hurley) always had ideas, he’d say what do you think about this and that’s why we had a variety of services.” One example she shared was after Kubler Ross, a psychiatrist and author of On Death and Dying visited Alaska, Bishop Hurley decided to start the Hospice program.
To see an organization that many thought would last only six months, reach it 45th anniversary Pat Denny attributes to, “the personalities” of the staff and volunteers who came together to serve the needs of everyone in southeast, no matter their religious affiliation.
Today, Catholic Social teaching is still at the heart of the mission of Catholic Community Services, though the organization has grown. Today CCS serves 11 communities in southeast Alaska and offers services including Hospice and Home Care, Southeast Senior services and Children and Family services.
Though she isn’t Catholic, Erin Walker-Tolles, executive director of CCS, said that before she accepted the position three years ago she prayed and did her research.
“I read all about Catholic social teaching, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is on my book shelf and I’ve read it,” she added, “I needed to be able to follow these values for myself, as a representative of the agency and to promote the values in all the work we do.”
Walker-Tolles has spent 20 years working in social services and was the chief of policy and program development for the division of public assistance for the State of Alaska, before taking on the role of Executive Director for CCS. She says that it is her faith that has led her on this career path, “God called me to work with the poor and with people in need.”
With the services provided today by CCS Walker-Tolles says the goal is to help people, “maintain their independentce and their dignity.” With the Senior programs, staff and volunteers give seniors a way to maintain their independence by offering transportation, giving them a place to socialize or bringing meals to their homes. With hospice care, providers give patients a way to die with dignity, by focusing on their quality of life.
The needs of the different communities served by Catholic Community Service vary and Walker-Tolles is aware of the differences, “They do what works for them in their communities,” since they know the people and have made the relationships. She continued, “My job is to allow the people who do the real work to do their jobs and get them what they need.”
As CCS looks to the future Walker-Tolles has begun to travel to the different communities in Southeast, in a similar fashion to Pat Denny, to ask them what they need. She says she has taken this approach because, “It really should be more about what they say they need, than what I think they should have.” Walker-Tolles said that these meetings have helped people in the smaller communities see that CCS doesn’t just serve Juneau and that every community is important.
Walker-Tolles contributes the organization longevity and success to the staff and volunteers, “I’m blown away by how amazing people are and how many great ideas there are, because it really is a collaboration.” With the collaboration of caring and compassionate staff and volunteers, the services offered by CCS will continue to serve those in need in southeast Alaska.