James Howell, 72, lost his rural Jackson County home in 2020 to the South Obenchain fire. He was not eligible for federal assistance, but Catholic Charities has provided him with materials to rebuild. (Courtesy James Howell)
James Howell, 72, lost his rural Jackson County home in 2020 to the South Obenchain fire. He was not eligible for federal assistance, but Catholic Charities has provided him with materials to rebuild. (Courtesy James Howell)
Catholic Charities of Oregon is expanding its disaster relief operations in a big way, with programs and staff aimed at filling a vital niche.

The Portland-based charity is geared up to provide post-disaster services in seven Oregon counties, from Interstate 5 to the Oregon Coast. It now is a key player in a long-term coordinated disaster relief effort in Jackson County. The Southern Oregon county is rebounding from devastating fires in 2020, including the Almeda fire that destroyed 2,700 structures and displaced 3,000 residents in and around Talent, Phoenix and Ashland.

It was the Almeda fire that led to Catholic Charities’ creating a disaster relief program, says Jen Masotja, the agency’s first director of disaster services in January 2021. Deacon Rick Birkel, Catholic Charities’ executive director, visited Jackson County shortly after the fire and recognized that victims needed help the agency could remake itself to provide.

A big step was hiring Masotja, who had been Multnomah County’s emergency manager, and building a framework for a coordinated disaster response program. Meanwhile, Catholic Charities continued to provide services to victims of the Southern Oregon blazes.

As a newcomer in disaster services, Catholic Charities will work with existing relief organizations, including Mercy Corps and the American Red Cross. Its goal, Masotja said, is not to compete but to complement other government and nonprofit services.

“We don’t want to replicate or duplicate what others offer,” she said. “We want to fill a gap that exists in those services.”

Catholic Charities already is playing an important administrative role in Southern Oregon disaster relief. It serves as a fiscal sponsor for the Jackson County Community Long-Term Recovery Group, a government and non-profit service coordinating body. In that role it has helped guide distribution millions of assistance dollars to recovery efforts.

Catholic Charities fills a niche in disaster relief in part by connecting disaster victims to its existing array of social service programs. For instance, the agency operates a financial wellness program for people trying to recover financially from devastating losses. Its family, food, intercultural counseling and refugee services programs also fill a need, including for non-English-speaking victims or those who are not U.S. citizens. Catholic Charities can tap into its strong donor base to quickly secure grants and assistance dollars for services that other agencies may not be able to provide, Masotja said.

The disaster services program currently has 33 staff members, including 10 in Jackson County. It has helped 245 disaster victims and provided $130,000 in assistance in Jackson County, Masotja said.

Caryn Wheeler-Clay, executive director of the recovery group, says Catholic Charities is making a difference. “It’s been really great to see how willing Catholic Charities has been to jump into the fray and work with other partners to help as many survivors as have come forward,” she said.

The end of need for assistance in Jackson County is nowhere in sight. “We anticipate at a minimum to be a five- to seven-year organization,” Wheeler-Clay said. “I really don’t think we’ve started to be back to normal.”

Catholic Charities offers disaster services to Catholics and non-Catholics alike as well as people of all races, sexual orientation, or immigration status. It benefits from its affiliation with the Catholic Church, which is perceived by many as offering a safe haven, said Blancaluz Brossard, the long-term recovery group’s board president.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Medford opened its doors to serve as a hub for emergency services and community meetings. Many fire victims, including undocumented residents, would not have visited a government building for assistance but felt safe visiting a church, Brossard said.

“The church really did play a great role,” he said. “The Catholic Church was a massive conduit for reaching our Latino population.”

Masotja expects incoming Catholic Charities executive director Natalie Wood to embrace the growing disaster services program fully. Wood worked for 27 years at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, where she led disaster relief and COVID-19 response efforts. That area gets hit with hurricanes regularly.

“Our board wants us to expand and grow,” Masotja added. “I imagine we’re just going to keep soaring.”