Wanda Thomas was recently named director of Catholic Charities. The Jackson native brings an extensive background in social work, with more than 20 years of experience in the field. Thomas earned her bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Southern Mississippi and master’s degree from Jackson State University. Thomas, who is a licensed clinical social worker, recently spoke with Sun staff writer Nikki Rowell about the mission of Catholic Charities and the ways the agency aids people across the state.
What first interested you in pursuing a career in social work?
“I have a strong desire to assist others and to serve. I believe in empowering others and coming alongside them and helping them work to achieve what they desire for themselves and making sure their voice is heard.”
When did you take on this new role as director of Catholic Charities?
“I started on June 17, 2019. I had worked here previously as a therapist in two of the different programs here. It was almost like coming back home and having an opportunity to continue doing what I love, but also able to be a strong voice and have a strong listening ear to what the team needs. Because I’ve done it before and been in the community, working on the front line, I have a better understanding of some of the tools that are more helpful for the team and make their jobs easier to manage. In any role we’re working in, the more skills we have and the access to training and enhance our skills, that then makes us more comfortable in what we’re doing. Then, the individuals we’re serving and working with, see your comfort level. When you are more comfortable, it is easier for them to trust you.”
What has the transition into this position been like so far?
“We have been having a great transition here working and streamlining some of our processes, identifying what we can do better as a team here and how to be more present in the community. We’ve been doing a deeper dive into what that will look like, such as what we are doing well and what we can improve on. We know that there are a lot of needs across the state of Mississippi, and we are making sure to do an assessment of where some of the gaps are in meeting those needs.
Tell me a bit about the mission of Catholic Charities.
“Our mission here is to be a visible sign of Christ’s love. Being able to meet others where they are, serve the needs of those that are vulnerable and being an advocate and a voice for them. That’s what we are about here.
Embracing the belief that it is more important to affirm people’s potential than to focus on their limitations, our services focus on strengthening and empowering individuals and families with resources and support that will help them overcome barriers they face in daily life.”
What are some of the services that the organization offers?
“We provide therapeutic foster care here. We do that in collaboration with child protective services here in the state to help meet the needs of our youth here in the state of Mississippi who are in need of foster care in their journey to find permanency or a forever home. We also do adoption as well within our therapeutic foster care program, working with not only parents, families or couples who are interested in adopting, but working with birth mothers as well who may not be in the position to parent but want to make sure their child goes to a loving home.
We also do intensive, in-home services. That’s where we work with youth out in the community who are experiencing some type of behavioral challenge that may prevent them from remaining in their school or community. We have a therapist and a facilitator who works with the youth and the families. We also have our born free program, which works with mother’s who are experiencing challenges around substance abuse. That is a residential problem that we have. So, they’re able to receive those services that they need, but also, they can have their children there with them.
We have two domestic violence shelters, where individuals who are fleeing domestic violence situations, if they have youth or a child they are able to bring them to the shelter while they are receiving services such as assistance with legal or court paperwork they need to file, orders of protection, also a court advocate to appear in court with them. Also, if they are in the shelter and maybe need assistance on how to obtain or go about obtaining employment. Sometimes, they are in pursuit of a degree or GED. We work with them around that as well.
We also have adult service programs. We have supportive services for veteran families and housing programs. Both of those are programs where we assist our veterans. We are also able to assist others in the community who are not veterans but are in need of housing. We also have a parish and community engagement ministry. That is where we work with the parishes that fall under the umbrella of this diocese to partner alongside them to identify the needs of their parishes to provide services and assistance with that.
We also have a migrant support services on site where we help those who are looking to obtain permanent residency here or their green card. We have the unaccompanied refugee minor program where we work with youth who come into the state of Mississippi.
Vardaman Family Life Center is located in Vardaman, a small town in NE Mississippi. The mission of the Vardaman Family Life Center is to be a welcoming presence – showing dignity for all people, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation and to provide support to vulnerable populations. The primary service area of the Center is Calhoun County and neighboring communities. Services are provided in both Spanish and English to ensure inclusion of the immigrant population in the area.”
How many people benefit from Catholic Charities programs each year?
“Across the state and throughout the year, we serve thousands of individuals here at the agency. Sometimes it may be just in the form of emergency food assistance. We do that as well. Especially at our Natchez location. We also have a thrift store, where we have clothing available for a minimal amount for individuals to come in and be able to obtain those items. Catholic Charities has been around for years and has such a strong legacy here in the state. It has been under the leadership of some innovative and trend-setting leaders. So, me coming here has definitely been a wonderful and great opportunity for me, and I want to make sure that we continue to make those individuals proud. And that we are able to provide services to individuals and families in a high-quality manor.”
What is the process of becoming a foster parent through Catholic Charities? What about the adoption process?
“Pursuing those, you have to go through what we call a licensure and background process. We do that here at the agency. Individuals come in and they interview, and they do an application with us. We are required then to do an extensive background check, as well as once that background check clears, we then proceed with a home study. What that home study looks like, is we do several visits to the home to meet with that individual, to meet with their support system. Once that is complete, you are required to go through a number of training hours. The training hours cover different topics, such as loss, grief, permanency planning, trauma, signs and symptoms of child abuse and neglect.”
What is Catholic Charities’ annual budget and where do those funds come from?
“For our funding, we receive a lot of donations from individuals out in the community. We have some very strong supporters. We are so thankful and grateful for all of their generosity. We also receive state and federal dollars through grants that we apply for to provide services. We also receive some portion of our funds through private pay or billing of insurances for individual or family services that we provide in our out-patient clinic.”
Tell me about the new shelter that was opened for victims of violence. How have operations there been going?
“For years, we were using some space that was very minimal for our shelter. Well, they identified a new building. Prior to moving into it, the building next door caught on fire and it damaged and changed the plan of moving into the new shelter. This year, in September, we were able to complete the modifications and everything done there and move the program successfully into the new building, which then allowed us to triple the number of families that are able to be served there now.”
As we approach the new year, what are some goals you have for the organization as we enter 2020?
“Our vision and goals here at the agency for 2020 are to be more visible in the state and making sure that we are forming partnerships across the state with others to assist with the needs where there are service gaps within our community. That’s really important to me. I just have a strong belief that there is no reason that we should not be providing any service that is needed here for our residents as it relates to social services or mental health services. We want to improve on what we’re doing and be innovative thinkers as it pertains to identifying ways to meet unmet needs here in our community.”