Sinclair Retires from Catholic Charities after 42 Years of Service (Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)

Posted 01/27/2017

During Bill Sinclair's 42 years with Catholic Charities of Tennessee, he has seen the organization assist countless people and experience tremendous growth.

When he started out in 1975, Catholic Charities of Tennessee had three employees and a budget of $141,000. As Sinclair prepares to retire from his executive director position at the end of January, the organization has more than 200 employees and an annual budget of about $24 million. It serves between 60,000 and 70,000 people in Middle Tennessee every year through a wide range of programs and services.

"When I look at where we started and where we are today, I'm proud that we are a well-respected organization that has made a difference for a lot of people," Sinclair said.

Those served include newly arrived refugees and immigrants, birthmothers and adoptive families, the homeless and working poor in need of a hot meal or emergency food box.

During its 55 years in operation, Catholic Charities of Tennessee has excelled at "constantly adapting to changing dynamics," Sinclair said.

When the agency was established in the Diocese of Nashville in 1962, they focused on resettling Cuban refugee children. In 1978, they launched St. Mary Villa Child Development Center to provide day care services to working families. In the mid-1980s, Catholic Charities started two new programs to serve senior citizens. In the 1990s, they expanded programming to assist adults transitioning from welfare to self-sufficiency. Since 2000, the agency has increased its reach in the community by growing safety net programs like Loaves and Fishes, as well as better addressing long-term needs of clients by adding job training programs and financial literacy classes.

During his long tenure as an employee and executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, Sinclair has seen the human services profession shift from "helping people with their immediate needs to focusing on the long-term."

Today, for example, instead of simply helping a homeless family move into an apartment, a Catholic Charities social worker will stick with the family for a full year to ensure they are plugged into all the support services they need to succeed, including job training and counseling. "‘Pathways out of poverty' is our mantra," Sinclair said.

Looking back on how Catholic Charities has grown during his tenure, he notes the importance of stability as well as growth. "Bigger is not always better," he said. "It's a matter of doing things well, sustaining what you're doing before venturing into new areas."

Sinclair's talent for administering programs and developing sustainable financing models for them has been one of the hallmarks of his tenure at Catholic Charities. "My natural skills for organization and math blended very well with my job," he said.

On Sinclair's watch, Catholic Charities has aggressively sought grants and federal and state contracts to finance the services the agency provides.

The agency identifies grants and contracts that are "in keeping with our mission," Sinclair said.

The one downside of using grants and government contracts, Sinclair said, is it puts some limits on Catholic Charities' flexibility in how it uses the funds when new needs arise. "I wouldn't give up any of the dollars we receive, but we are limited because most of our money is restricted," he said.

In addition to government grants, Catholic Charities of Tennessee is also funded through private donations, the Bishop's Annual Appeal for Ministries, service fees, and the United Way.

Sinclair's skills in administration and organization has helped sustain the St. Mary Villa Child Development Center. Moving the Center from White Bridge Road to the St. Vincent de Paul campus in North Nashville last year was one of Sinclair's last major undertakings as executive director. St. Mary Villa is still adjusting to its new space, but overall, Sinclair said, "it's going really well, and with St. Vincent we have a nearly perfect relationship. It's mutually beneficial."

In the late 1970s, Sinclair helped lead the transition of the White Bridge property from a residential child care facility to the modern-day St. Mary Villa Child Development Center, which provides child care on a sliding fee scale so families pay based on their income level. "We can be proud," Sinclair said. "We have a mix of different incomes, a mix of ethnic backgrounds, a mix of ages."

Over the years, Sinclair also had a hand in administering refugee resettlement programs, the Villa Maria Manor housing for seniors, and the St. Patrick Shelter for Homeless Families, which eventually became Safe Haven Family Shelter.

Sinclair started his career with Catholic Charities in Dayton, Ohio, as the director of a summer program for impoverished youth. "I just fell in love with it," he said. "As you got to know these young kids and these families that lived in the projects, I felt a passion for the work and I felt like I could make a difference."

While still in graduate school at Ohio State University, Sinclair moved to Nashville and transferred to the University of Tennessee Graduate College of Social Work. In 1975, he took what was to be a temporary job with Catholic Charities of Tennessee relocating refugees from Vietnam. "I still get Christmas cards written in Vietnamese," Sinclair said.

The temporary job became permanent. Sinclair served as assistant director from 1977 to 1986, when he was named executive director. "I've always felt very fortunate to be here," he said.

His influence has been felt outside Catholic Charities as well. He has been active with the National Association of Social Workers for more than 35 years, serving at one time as treasurer of the Tennessee Chapter. In 2010, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Tennessee Chapter "for his devotion to providing services to people in need of all religious, cultural, racial and economic backgrounds."

He also was on the advisory committee for the UT Graduate College of Social Work and was an adjunct professor for 19 years teaching financial management and grant writing.

Sinclair served on the Nashville Mayor's Workforce Development Committee for six years.

He has served on the Catholic Charities USA national board, on its housing commission and on its management and administration committee.

As Sinclair reflected on his four decades with Catholic Charities he was quick to tip his hat to his staff and board. "It takes a lot of dedicated people to make this work," he said. "They care tremendously about the work that they do."

He also noted that he has "always felt the tremendous support of each of the bishops I've worked with," Bishops James Niedergeses, Edward Kmiec and David Choby. "That's been a blessing," said Sinclair, a parishioner at St. Patrick Church in Nashville.

When Sinclair steps down, Pamela Russo, former executive director of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, will be taking the reins of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. The two have been working closely together for the last two months to ensure a smooth transition. In person, over the phone and through e-mail, "she's had a lot of exposure to who we are," and is ready to step in and lead the organization forward, Sinclair said.


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