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Sally O’Dwyer built network of volunteers for Catholic Charities

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When Sally O'Dwyer, director of volunteers for Catholic Charities, saw the job posted for an English as a Second Language coordinator position, something told her she had to have the job.

Looking back, O’Dwyer said it wasn’t college or any professional role, but working as a waitress at IHOP where she befriended the busboys and cooks.

“They had no future whatsoever, they didn’t speak the language and were disconnected,” she said. “It didn’t sit well with me.”

It led her to start taking Spanish classes and studying in Mexico.

“It was always such a deep pain to see those people struggling,” she said. “So when I saw this job I just knew it was for me.”

O’Dwyer joined Hogar Immigrant Services as an ESL coordinator in August, 1999. She is leaving the Diocese of Arlington, where she has worked for nearly 20 years to move to Boulder, Colo., because of her husband’s job. Her last day was Feb. 26.

Art Bennett, president and CEO of Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities, said in a letter to colleagues that O’Dwyer brought a positive attitude to all ventures and prospective plans.

“She is a tremendous motivator and I’ve never met anyone, anywhere, who could get more energy and creativity from volunteers,” said Bennett. “She is never afraid to ask for what Catholic Charities clients need, and if she is disappointed it never lasts and she is off to explore the next good idea to make something good happen.”

Bennett said he was skeptical of O’Dwyer’s focus on volunteers when he first arrived, but she converted him.

“Some of the most incredible aspects of Catholic Charities bear this out — the Mother of Mercy Clinic, the volunteer leadership of the Catholic Charities Ball, our education programs, the nightly meal at Christ House, the volunteering board of directors, the Knights of Columbus participation and heavy-lifting for the St. Lucy Project. The list goes on,” he said. “So now we have over 4,000 volunteers in our Samaritan database as a testament to her transformative vision of volunteer impact.”

When O’Dwyer started working at Hogar, there were 75 volunteers and 300 students. She grew it to 350 volunteers and 2,300 students.

“I started to see the power of volunteerism because I was working with the immigrant community that didn’t have any language skills,” she said. “The volunteers flourished and felt like they were living their faith. The immigrants were happy and learning and improving. They also were learning there were people that cared about them.”

O’Dwyer said the teachers were volunteers and the classroom was a friendly place, where immigrants were valued.

“I saw Catholic Charities as facilitating an opportunity for people to fulfill their obligations as Catholics,” she said.

Following her work at Hogar, O’Dwyer went on to become associate director and then vice president of Community Services.

“I enjoyed working with the program directors and giving them support,” she said. “Working with people in need is really hard, and there’s that constant reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing. I always remember that when we are doing God’s will we can’t go wrong.”

O’Dwyer said she keeps that in the front of her mind. “We pray that we are doing God’s will every day,” she said. “We think about if it is helpful or not to an individual. Are we managing those boundaries?”

O’Dwyer said placing volunteers is challenging, but there are 145 different volunteer opportunities.

“It’s Catholic Charities’ responsibility and calling to engage the community in what we’re doing,” she said. “We reach 21 counties. With our small staff, if we didn’t use volunteers, how would we be able to reach those people?”

She finds support from parishes.

"I grew the number of volunteers through extensive outreach and thanks to the parishes who advertise for us," she said. "The parishes are our biggest supporters in finding volunteers."

When O’Dwyer meets with volunteers, many feel they want to help but may not know the best way. “So many people are called to serve,” said O’Dwyer. “It’s our job to find where they fit in our programming, how to work together to best serve others. It brings me great joy when I see the volunteer working with a client and they are both being helped.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019