Chief of Hope & Love
After one year at the helm of Catholic Charities, Ellen Hammerle talks about “rebuilding” from the inside out after COVID-19
By Christina Gray
Ellen Hammerle agreed to meet Catholic San Francisco this summer at St. Vincent School for Boys to talk about her first year as chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of San Francisco. From a small office perched above a courtyard at the 770-acre former orphanage in San Rafael where traumatized boys have found healing since 1853, Hammerle described a year centered on organizational and individual recovery.
“It’s been a hard road to recovery, I would say,” said Hammerle, successor to former CEO Jilma Meneses. Meneses left Catholic Charities after five years in 2021 to serve as secretary of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. “Thanks to the dedication of our board and staff, we have finally turned a corner and are back in our headquarters,” at 990 Eddy St. in San Francisco.
A psychotherapist who also holds a law degree, Hammerle, with more than 25 years of service, is the first CEO in Catholic Charities’ recent history to ascend through the ranks of the nonprofit.
She spent her first years leading the behavioral health programs for the chronically ill and then expanded to serve homeless women and their children at Catholic Charities’ Rita da Cascia Community in San Francisco. She later became division director of housing support services, then served as vice president of client services — which has oversight for all 32 Catholic Charities programs and services — before being named CEO in August 2022.
“There has never been anyone before her who has come in with the same deep, inside, on-the-ground years of program experience,” said Jane Ferguson Flout, director of strategic and community partnerships, who joined our interview. “Ellen knows the insides of us.”
With a detailed list of nearly 100 completed initiatives, action items, budget goals, hiring decisions and more, we asked Hammerle about some of them.
CATHOLIC SAN FRANCISCO: Assuming a leadership position of any organization or business in the aftermath of COVID-19 would have to be daunting. What made you want to take on this role?
HAMMERLE: I came up through the programs working side by side with front-line staff. Mine is a lived experience that teaches you what is best for employees, programs and clients, and when to innovate for positive change. I know the complexity of the organization. I have been through a number of executive directors over the years. There were a lot of lessons learned just by participating in leadership meetings. When the opening presented itself, I saw an opportunity to utilize what I have learned at a critical time in the organization’s history. I believe in our programs and services. My life has been a life of service with deep gratitude for this opportunity.
CATHOLIC SAN FRANCISCO: How did the pandemic affect Catholic Charities?
HAMMERLE: I was the vice president of our programs at that time, and I was immediately thrown into how to keep them open, and how to support our front-line workers so they didn’t get sick. I tried to find ways we could safely do our jobs without shutting the entire agency down. Unfortunately, our headquarters office shut down during the pandemic. In my opinion, it made it much more challenging for us to stay together as an organization.
CSF: What were the financial impacts of COVID-19, and is recovery in sight?
HAMMERLE: Everything in terms of participation and funding decreased during COVID. People were scared. I think we came out with a $3 million deficit in the end, but all along that journey there was this ballooning deficit. We were trying to figure out cuts across the board, cuts in staffing, programs that we’d have to close, decisions about pivoting by opening new programs, and whether to move staff to another program or lay them off. It was really intense. Things are turning around, and we are getting back to a balanced budget. Programs that had to close are reopening. Campers are camping again, kids are playing sports, and CCCYO buses are rolling.
CSF: Now that we are on the other side of it, can you see that the pandemic offered any hidden graces to Catholic Charities?
HAMMERLE: We learned how well we were able to innovate in order to meet our clients’ needs. For example, we opened “learning hubs” for youth in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo Counties in collaboration with local jurisdictions who were concerned vulnerable kids were not getting an education. During the height of the pandemic our multicultural staff operated these hubs to provide elementary and middle-school students with laptops, Internet access and the socio-emotional support and tutoring they needed to focus on their academics. We also operated Project Roomkey hotels in San Francisco and Marin for homeless families and seniors to have a safe and calm place to quarantine during the pandemic.
CSF: Was reopening your headquarters offices one of your priorities in this first year?
HAMMERLE: Yes. We’ve been working hard to recover our internal sense of community. When the headquarters closed during COVID, something meaningful was lost, particularly for a social services organization. Our communication and connection became decentralized. As part of our post-pandemic recovery plan, I had to call the management-level staff back into the office because they were so dispersed. It’s been months of trying to get this done, and naturally, some people did not want to come back in. So, we’ve had to rehire a number of positions. I also reorganized our management structure which I felt was a little top-heavy. At the same time, I began emphasizing self-care as a part of our Culture of Care. Our staff needed to heal from burnout and grief. There’s my background as a psychotherapist for you, but this work is hard, and COVID-19 made it harder. Many of staff and our clients are still recovering.
CSF: Speaking of community, I know Catholic Charities has been working to establish “parish ambassadors” in every parish in the Archdiocese. Why?
HAMMERLE: The Parish Ambassador program began in 2019. The idea was to have one or two parish ambassadors represent Catholic Charities in every parish to share it at a deeper, more consistent level with parishioners. The program stalled during the pandemic. Perhaps a parish family needs a program offered by Catholic Charities. Or the parish is looking for a service project. Parish ambassadors can help make Catholic Charities accessible to parish families.
CSF: It’s very big news that Catholic Charities is adding disaster relief and humanitarian aid to its programs. Tell us about how this happened and why.
HAMMERLE: Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Charities of California and the California bishops were all encouraging us to take on disaster relief and humanitarian aid. Given the flood and fire events we’re prone to in California, we started noticing more state funding opportunities come through, which enabled us to move forward in earnest with this. I approached our administrative council about it, and we applied for and won three state contracts. One will focus on flood assistance from the recent winter storms for immigrants in San Mateo and San Francisco counties. With the other two grants, we will create a new division that combines education, e.g., mitigation and preparation, etc., with case management for disaster victims.
CSF: What else can you tell us that is new at Catholic Charities or has changed since the end of the pandemic?
HAMMERLE: Our proposal for a long-term, residential treatment program and facility for severely traumatized women in Marin County was approved and opened during the pandemic. The Carmelita Home is a therapeutic pilot project that will be evaluated in three to five years. Also, because the state changed its requirements for short-term, therapeutic residential programs, St. Vincent School for Boys currently works with the Office of Refugee Settlement to support boys ages 12-17.
CSF: Some Catholics don’t have a clear understanding of Catholic Charities, what it does and its relationship to the Catholic Church. Can you explain?
HAMMERLE: We hear that too. What does Catholic Charities DO? It isn’t easy to wrap one’s mind around 32 different programs serving 70,000 people a year. Catholic Charities is the social services arm of the Church in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Our mission is to provide direct social services to everyone in keeping with Catholic social teaching. In essence, Catholic Charities is a concrete expression of God’s love in the world. The word charity, or “caritas” in Latin, means love. We hope the Parish Ambassador program will help bridge that gap of understanding about who we are and bring parishioners into closer relationship with our programs and services.
Visit catholiccharitiessf.org to see who Catholic Charities serves.
Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.