When Dr. Mark Totaro came aboard Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Harrisburg in 2004, he set out with a focus that would become his mantra in overseeing the organization’s services and programs: fulfill the mission, do things the right way and inspire financial support to serve more people.
Heading into retirement after serving as its Executive Director and CEO for 17 years, Totaro reflected on his tenure with Catholic Charities, shining a spotlight on its service to those in need and his hopes for its future.
Totaro’s time with the non-profit began in 1998, when he was a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Hershey. Msgr. Francis Kumontis, then director of Catholic Charities and a priest at St. Joan’s, invited Totaro to serve on the organization’s board.
Six years later, Totaro decided to toss his hat into the ring when the Diocese began its search for a new director to succeed Msgr. Kumontis. Totaro’s expertise was in the field of logistics, but with his business background and a familiarity with Catholic Charities’, he was hired.
“After years in logistics and dealing with the pressures to reach numbers, I thought it would be nice to give back and do something to benefit humanity,” Totaro said of his career change. “Working for Catholic Charities was an opportunity to help people, and that is what attracted me.”
Providing Help, Creating Hope
Catholic Charities is the social outreach arm of the Church. It provides hope, help and support to thousands of families each year, regardless of their faith. In the 15 counties of the Diocese, Catholic Charities offers counseling, family-based mental health services, adoption and foster care services, assistance for immigrants and refugees, substance abuse services, maternity care and family shelter through its various programs – most of which are offered at minimal or no cost to clients.
According to its 2019-2020 annual report, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Harrisburg served more than 2,000 men, women and children in the calendar year. These services included more than 37,200 meals at the Interfaith Shelter for Homeless Families; 432 parenting classes for women at Lourdeshouse Maternity Home; 4,580 days of shelter for women in recovery at Evergreen House, and more than 6,600 counseling sessions among its four counseling programs.
Catholic Charities’ services are not reserved for Catholics only. In fact, 93 percent of its clients, along with 70 percent of its staff, are non-Catholic. It’s truly their mission to bring the face of Christ to everyone in need.
There are 138 Catholic Charities organizations throughout the country; one in most dioceses, and all under the umbrella of Catholic Charities USA. Still, each one is unique to its own locale, and in the Diocese of Harrisburg, Catholic Charities stands out with its residential programs.
“We have the only family shelter in the tri-county area of Dauphin, Cumberland and Perry counties. While others accept only men or only women, we accept the family unit, whether it’s a mother and father and their children; a mother and a child; or grandparents and grandchildren,” Totaro said. “Additionally, we operate Lourdeshouse, one of only three maternity homes in the state of Pennsylvania.”
The Interfaith Shelter for Homeless Families, Lourdeshouse Maternity Home and Evergreen House for Women in Recovery – known as Catholic Charities’ “Homes for Healing” – are located in one facility, the St. Samuel Center in Harrisburg.
“We aim to perform the Corporal Works of Mercy: sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned,” Totaro said. “We try to spread the word as much as we can about what we do and how we can help people. Our mission is to provide help and create hope.”
Working for Growth
When Totaro stepped into his role as Executive Director 17 years ago, he came with a business background, and therefore relied on the expertise of the social workers in the field.
“One of the things I told the caseworkers when I was started was, ‘I’m not a social worker, and I’m not trying to be, but you all are. We need an orchestra in order to play a symphony. You do your work individually, and my job is to get you all to play together like a conductor. I don’t have expertise in the area of social work, but you do; I want to steer the boat in the right direction,’” he said.
During Totaro’s tenure, Catholic Charities, long-known for its counseling services since its establishment in 1938, upgraded its counseling facilities from rectory and convent offices to more private and commercial spaces. Programs for adoption and foster care, and for immigration and refugees relocated to a combined facility on Harrisburg’s East Park Drive, as did the three Homes for Healing at the St. Samuel Center in the Colonial Park area.
“I think the upgrade of our facilities for our programs is one of the things I’m most proud of during my time. The upgrades have allowed for better space for our employees and for our clients,” Totaro said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered offices and put greater restrictions on the residential programs, Catholic Charities stepped up to the challenge to continue its services. In-person counseling maneuvered into tele-health sessions via Zoom, and the Homes for Healing continued to welcome residents – albeit fewer in number – after a period of quarantine and with sanitation and social distancing protocols in place.
“Our clients were pleased that the services continued,” Totaro said.
Fundraising also began during his time at the helm, with the hiring of Catholic Charities’ first Director of Development in 2006 and the inaugural Come and See Dinner that same year.
Today, Catholic Charities offers a wide range of fundraising events, including the Soup, Salad and Sermon luncheon during Lent, the 5K Shelter Shuffle, a golf tournament, and the Souper Bowl Sunday Soup Sale.
In addition, continuous donations of wish-list items like cleaning supplies, toiletries, coats for kids and infant items are faithfully given by parishes, schools, Knights of Columbus councils, Councils of Catholic Women, and Scouts.
Donations of financial support and wish-list items help offset Catholic Charities’ expenses in order to serve more people. The organization is primarily funded through the Diocese and the United Way to continue its critical services, especially for people who are out of work or don’t have insurance.
“The Diocesan allocations and funds from the United Way give us monies to fill in those cracks, because we will not turn anyone away. Having the ability to pay is not a prerequisite for receiving our services. The more money we receive in donations and from fundraisers, the more people we can help,” Totaro said.
Hope for the Future
Totaro expressed his gratitude to Catholic Charities’ staff, donors and volunteers for their commitment to the mission of serving people in need.
“I’ve been blessed to have a lot of support from the four bishops I’ve worked for, and from the staff here,” he said. “Carole Klinger (Director of Administration) and Pete Biasucci (Assistant Executive Director) have been by my side since day one. I’ve met a lot of great people through Catholic Charities and have had wonderful support from the staff here in the office.”
“We also have a great cadre of volunteers and supporters, people who help us routinely and do whatever they can to support our mission. They come to our events every year, regardless of which program is the beneficiary or who the guest speaker is. We are grateful for them,” he said. “During COVID, we couldn’t have our usual fundraisers in person, so we did a virtual Shelter Shuffle and a virtual Come and See, and our numbers were as good – if not better – than where they would usually be.”
As Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Harrisburg transitions to new leadership, Totaro said he is hopeful that it will expand, and said early childhood education, elder care and health care might be possibilities for continuing the mission.
In his retirement, Totaro, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Palmyra, plans to continue his volunteer work, spend time with his seven grandchildren and refine his golf game. He will also continue to support the work of Catholic Charities.
“I am leaving on great terms, so I will always be a phone call away for my successor and for whatever I can do to help Catholic Charities and the Diocese,” he said.
“I don’t know what the future will bring, but I hope Catholic Charities will continue to be a player and find things to continue helping people,” he said.
(Learn more about Catholic Charities, its programs and how you can get involved at www.cchbg.org.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness