By Maureen Smith
JACKSON – Wanda Thomas, the new CEO for Catholic Charities of Jackson, is no stranger to the agency or the good work being done there. She is set to start Monday, June 17. Thomas worked as a therapist at Charities in the early 2000s and has gone on to earn more credentials and more experience both in social work and the supervision of that work at other agencies in the state.
Thomas spent many years at Canopy Children’s Services, formerly known as Mississippi Children’s Home Services, as a regional director, director of intensive in-home services and program director of their therapeutic foster care services. Catholic Charities has similar programs.
“I have a passion and drive for change. I like to see change over time. I like to look at where we have come from. I like to build things. The services and programs (at Catholic Charities) are there, but as the new person I can come in with new thoughts and new ideas and think outside the box,” said Thomas. “I am looking forward to adding to what is already in place and having a positive impact,” she added.
Msgr. Elvin Sunds, former executive director for Catholic Charities, was on the search committee for a new leader. “She has 20-some years of experience in social work. She is a licensed master social worker, which is important to the agency. She has supervised programs similar to the ones offered at Catholic Charities. She is certainly qualified,” said Msgr. Sunds. “The committee was impressed with her enthusiasm, her communication skills and her commitment to the mission of Catholic Charities,” he explained.
Thomas describes herself as very mission driven. The mission of Charities, she said, is one of the reasons she felt called to apply for the position. She believes her experience will help her in her new role because she has faced many of the challenges facing the staff already in place. “That’s going to give me a great opportunity and window into what we may need to improve on, what we are missing, but I have also been in their shoes. I have had to come up with solutions to many of these challenges,” she said.
“I want to strengthen what we already have in place – highlight what we are doing well. (I want to focus on) retention. You can only be as successful as your staff, so I want to retain talented individuals, to recruit, to provide them with development to do their best jobs. I want them to teach me how to work alongside them. To me, I am building a whole new team,” she said.
Thomas said when therapists and staff members work with people in crisis or people who have experienced trauma, they can carry part of those burdens with them. “I want to restore hope, in a way. What they are doing is having an impact. I want them to see that impact. When you can show how they are being beneficial, that can be a motivator,” said Thomas. “The health of an agency and its culture carries out into the community,” she added.
For the past three years, Bishop Joseph Kopacz has acted as CEO for the agency in collaboration with John Lunardini, the Agency’s COO for the past year and a half. “I am most grateful to John Lunardini for his invaluable contribution to the wellbeing of the agency through the strengthening of our financial base, our relationships with our funding sources and the advancement of our marketing and development. For sure, he will bring his skills and added experience from the social service world to any future employment,” Bishop Kopacz said.
Thomas will be the first non-Catholic at the helm of the agency. The bishop plans to remain present to direct the Catholic identity efforts at the office, and to further strengthen the vital role that Catholic Charities has for the diocesan mission and vision, but will hand the day-to-day operations over to Thomas. “Wanda Thomas has a great sense of what our mission needs to be, and we will move forward with a great team,” said the bishop.
Charities was formally chartered in 1963, but has its roots in the founding of a pair of orphanages in Natchez in the 1850s. It currently operates a number of social service programs including therapeutic foster care, adoption, the Solomon Counseling Center, services for the survivors of domestic violence, refugee and migrant support services and services for families experiencing mental health crises.