PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger — and encourage budgeting?

The works of mercy have been at the heart of Catholic Charities’ outreach in western Oregon, as the agency tends to the acute needs of people who are poor and also advocates for social justice.

To fulfill its mission even more effectively, however, the nonprofit for the past several years has given clients practical skills to grow their financial literacy, their savings accounts and, ultimately, their dreams for the future. And, starting this spring, its holistic financial support system will come together in a centralized location: the Family Success Center, housed in Catholic Charities’ Southeast Portland building.

“Our hope is this center truly moves people out of poverty and gives them a leg up, not just a handout,” said Molly O’Donnell, director of the center, which is now under construction.


According to Jane Stenson, senior director for poverty reduction strategies for Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Charities of Oregon is recognized as an innovator in financial education, which she said has become more of a focus nationally.

“They are held up as a shining star,” Stenson told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

The three primary components of the Family Success Center include financial education, addressing attitudes around money, budgeting and debt; financial coaching, providing individualized support around budgets and financial goals; and asset-building, supported through matched savings accounts funded by a combination of state, federal and private monies.

“The coaching program is where we see lives changed,” said O’Donnell. No one likes to budget, but once people track spending, it can create stability and opportunities.

Through the state’s individual development accounts and a federally administered program, for example, coaching graduates can save and be matched at a 3-to-1 rate for a goal such as college, entrepreneurship or first-time home-ownership.

Catholic Charities’ focus on finances sprang from a partnership forged with Providence Health & Services in 2010. While administering the emergency cash-assistance program for Providence employees, “we realized providing just emergency assistance was a Band-Aid, not a lasting solution,” said O’Donnell.

“Our work with Providence has allowed us to see what people truly need,” she said, and Catholic Charities’ financial education services “grew organically out of that.”


Now, clients who reach out to the organization through a variety of channels — via crisis pregnancy support, refugee resettlement, or housing assistance — are directed to financial wellness services, also provided in Spanish.

“We feel every client of the agency at some point needs the services provided in the center,” O’Donnell said, noting addressing immediate needs will always be a priority as well.

On a recent morning, as workers installed wiring in one of the Family Success Center’s light-filled, spacious rooms, O’Donnell pointed out the cheerful, soothing teal walls and rows of meeting rooms.

“Here we want people to feel welcome, comfortable and safe,” she said, “and find a path out of poverty.”


Scott is special projects reporter for the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon.