By Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
OWENSBORO, Ky. — Four years ago this January, Susan Montalvo-Gesser became the director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro.
Her plan had been to grow the agency by increasing assistance to victims of violence, improving humanitarian relief, helping with family-sponsored visas and expanding diocesan counseling resources, among other dreams.
She had one “normal” year, so to speak. Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic began “and things changed,” she told The Western Kentucky Catholic, the diocesan newspaper.
Shortly after that, the Catholic Charities agency began assisting Afghans being resettled in the area, “and more things changed,” she said.
“Then we had the tornadoes,” Montalvo-Gesser said of the Dec. 10, 2021, storms that devastated western Kentucky.
By this point, Catholic Charities had become accustomed to pivoting when whenever something shifted.
But the storms, considered the worst tornado outbreak in Kentucky history, intensified the workload of the agency’s three employees — two full-time and one part-time — throwing them into an intense learning curve.
“What had prepared me was that in summer 2019, we went to Laredo, Texas, to assist their local Catholic Charities in accompanying migrants,” Montalvo-Gesser explained. “Following their Catholic Charities’ example, we learned how to love by the seat of our pants.”
She recalled witnessing how the migrants had lost any sense of dignity after being processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement workers, and that in serving the migrants, “you just had to give and receive love.”
There she learned the lesson that “we’re not going to be able to ‘fix’ things” in some scenarios. Instead, Catholic Charities’ focus should be that “we are accompanying the marginalized on their journey on their terms,” she said.
The realization served as the guiding principle for the agency in those first days after the tornadoes and it has remained to this day.
A year later, Catholic Charities’ staff has multiplied. There are case managers helping tornado survivors in the communities ravaged by the storms. The agency has become a trusted, recognized and respected name even by those who are not Catholic.
Khaibar Shafaq, who originally came to Kentucky as part of the Afghan resettlement program in Owensboro, today serves as a paralegal and case manager for Catholic Charities.
“Every day I always learn something new. It’s always a blessing to work with Susan. She’s one of the best people I’ve ever worked with,” Shafaq said.
Montalvo-Gesser expressed gratitude for Gabe Tischler, emergency management specialist for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, who within days after the tornadoes traveled from Florida to provide a crash course in disaster response to the western Kentucky agency.
Tischler has continued a relationship with the diocese, training all Catholic Charities case managers before they begin working with tornado survivor clients.
“Then his area experienced Hurricane Ian,” said Montalvo-Gesser. When she reached out to check on him, Tischler reminded her to “keep your oxygen mask on, keep doing what you’re doing.”
Montalvo-Gesser said Catholic Charities USA has been affirming and accessible through the entire journey. The national agency based in Alexandria, Virginia, has also provided approximately $2.9 million in gifts and another $40,600 in grants to the diocesan Catholic Charities tornado relief operation.
Other regional Catholic Charities agencies have shared their own insights from natural disasters, such as the team in southern Missouri, who experienced the Joplin tornado in 2011.
“Hearing their wisdom that when you are hit with a disaster and lean on these partners, you can come back stronger,” Montalvo-Gesser said. “All of the people we’ve met throughout this process … this is my new circle.”
Drawing from their own experiences, the Catholic Charities staff stepped in to help with relief efforts when floods in July devastated their neighbors in eastern Kentucky.
Montalvo-Gesser estimated that it will still take three to five years before the region fully rebuilds and recovers from the tornadoes, and said she is grateful to those who have continued supporting these efforts.
“The biggest blessings have been the people,” she said. “The survivors. The case managers. The volunteers who stepped in.”