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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Q&A: Sister Danielle Gagnon of Wilmington’s St. Patrick’s Center

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St. Patrick’s Center Executive Director Danielle Gagnon

Day in and day out since 1971, St. Patrick’s Center has been serving the people of Wilmington’s East Side. As the needs of that community have changed and grown, so to has the non-denominational social service organization. Danielle Gagnon – Harvard graduate, global health expert and Sister of Mercy – was recently appointed the Center’s new executive director. TSD connected with the Delaware newcomer to learn about her background and where she’s looking to lead this important local nonprofit.

TSD: Initially very focused on serving a senior population, St. Patrick’s Center has evolved over the years to provide a broad range of critical human services to residents of all ages on Wilmington’s East Side.  As the organization’s new leader, how do you approach determining where to best focus your efforts to serve a population in such great need?

Sister Danielle: This one probably needs a two-part answer! First, St. Pat’s is special because we remain flexible and lean enough to allow the needs of the community to direct the focus of our efforts. St. Pat’s specializes in basic needs, so that means that every day our amazing staff and volunteers focus on the immediate needs of the folks who walk through the door. We respond to the person who is standing before us and strive to do so with respect and kindness. The needs are as varied as the people who come to St. Pat’s. Many times we are able to fill the need or at least part of it, and other times we are able to point someone in the right direction to receive the services they need. The hard days are the ones when we try our best, but the resources or access to resources to really help just aren’t there. Thankfully, those days are pretty rare!

Second, the answer at 30,000 feet is that it takes lots of work to stay flexible and lean! Developing and maintaining relationships with partners is a big focus. We know we can’t do it alone. Much effort is put into nurturing partnerships with other organizations so that we can provide access to holistic services. Lots of effort is put in to cultivating relationships with our many generous supporters. We rely on financial support and in-kind donations from hundreds of people, foundations, corporations and the great state of Delaware. All of these relationships are absolutely essential to the work we do at St. Pat’s each day.

There are endless needs in our community and varied opportunities to address them. So, when I’m faced with the real difficult decisions about the allocation of our limited resources, I fall back on our Mission and let it guide me. I ask myself, “How is this decision going to impact the folks who need St. Pat’s most?”

TSD: What do you see as the areas where the Center will really have to focus going forward?

SD: It looks like programs and space will be the two big focuses going forward.

I think any transition presents an opportunity to take a step back and evaluate. Right now we are reviewing the programs we offer and asking the important questions of our guests, staff and volunteers: How are we doing? What do you love about St. Pat’s? What can we do better? And, what do you need that we don’t offer right now? It’s clear that two programmatic areas of focus for the next year are our Homeless Respite and our Senior Center.

Daily visits to our Homeless Respite have doubled in the past six months. We have increased from an average of 30 visits per day to near 60 visits per day. This is having a huge impact on St. Pat’s and we need to take a critical and compassionate look at what we are doing and how we are doing it.

Our Senior Center is the foundation of St. Pat’s and we want to treat it as such. We have some exciting plans for the Senior Center that will be announced in the next few months. I can tell you that we are going to be very intentional about offering more activities, more opportunities for engagement, and more bus trips. Stay tuned!

I’m sure you’ve gathered that St. Pat’s is busting at the seams! We need more space and we need to explore our options to spread out a bit.

TSD: There is never a time in the nonprofit world when the needs aren’t pressing and resources tight.  How do you distinguish what the Center does to ensure continued support for your mission and what are the key goals you are looking to measure in terms of your impact?

SD: I’ve become fond of saying that “who we are is as important as what we do.” St. Pat’s distinguishes itself as a community first and a center second. We hear from guests, volunteers and donors that there is something special about St. Pat’s. I know it’s true because I felt it myself when I came for my first interview last winter. From that first visit I knew I wanted to spend my days here. I think the “it factor” is that all are truly welcome at St. Pat’s.

Of course, this is impossible to measure quantitatively. So, we track indicators like how many people who are hungry are eating; how many people who are experiencing homelessness have shelter when we can offer it; how many people who need access to social workers and medical attention receive it. We measure how many visits there are to our different program areas each day, we look for trends, and we adjust accordingly. The number of folks we serve is really impressive given our small staff size and our tiny budget. We make sure that we keep our administrative expenses below 10 percent. This is attractive to supporters who are looking to make a big impact with their giving. When our supporters come to visit us and see first-hand our programs and meet the really inspiring people on the east side…that is when the commitment to continue support is made.

TSD: You have a fascinating background – global experience in education and health care.   How did you connect with St. Patrick’s and this new role?

SD: I kind of think of my background as pretty regular. I grew up in Lowell, MA – an old Mill City on the Merrimack River just south of New Hampshire. I have a big, loving and supportive extended family and they all grew up there too. It seemed like someone in my family was either related to, went to school, worked, or played sports with everyone in the city. There was a lot of emphasis placed on family, hard work, and especially watching out for and caring for people in need.

I went to an all-girls’ Catholic High School and was educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur where they taught me what I need to know for life: be of service, be well-educated for the purpose contributing to the common good, and trust the goodness of God. As the years went on, I graduated from college and held some really rewarding positions with awesome organizations, but my desire to be of service and to know more deeply the goodness of God grew. I met the Sisters of Mercy while working for an organization that operates maternal-child health projects around the world, and from my first interactions with them I knew that I had found the Community for me.

The Sisters of Mercy were founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland in 1831… she is the one with the fascinating background! In her late forties, after years of heart-breaking loss, some years spent living in poverty, and having no real possessions of her own, she took an entire unexpected inherited fortune and opened up the first House of Mercy where she and the women who came to join her did much of the same work we do at St. Pat’s every day. Since then, Sisters of Mercy have committed themselves to performing the Works of Mercy, among them are the works done every single day at St. Pat’s: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; and comfort the sick. So St. Pat’s seemed like a great fit for me…right down to the Irish heritage!

TSD: Is this your first time living in Delaware?  What might we find you enjoying outside of your work?

SD: Yes! November marks my five-month anniversary as a Delaware resident! When I’m not at St. Pat’s you’ll find me kayaking on Lums Pond, taking a walk or having dinner with friends on the Riverfront, or exploring some new place I haven’t been yet (I’m taking suggestions!). As the winter months approach it’s more likely you’ll find me going into a movie theater or reading a book or writing poetry while hunkered down at home in Bear. I also love to spend time with my religious community the Sisters of Mercy. Every once in a while you’ll catch my tail lights as I head north to visit my family. My nieces and nephews are growing up way too fast so I love to get up to New England to visit them and my whole family when I can.

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