Seeking Social Justice

Photo by Alan Warren, Messenger-Inquirer | awarren@messenger-inquirer.com Susan Montalvo-Gesser in her office on Friday at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro.

When Susan Montalvo-Gesser lost her bid in the 2016 November general election to become Daviess County's first Family Court judge, she admittedly thought it may have been one of the worst times of her life.

"The way my career was tracking I thought Family Court judge was where I was supposed to be," Montalvo-Gesser said. "I had the experience and it was a place I thought I could make a difference."

But nearly three years later, she now views that election loss as part of God's plan that she didn't see at the time.

On Jan. 3, Montalvo-Gesser took over as the Diocese of Owensboro's director of Catholic Charities.

And although headquartered in Owensboro, Catholic Charities serves 32 counties and 78 parishes.

"I look back now and yes, I would've been helping families in Daviess County," Montalvo-Gesser said. "But now I'm able to help so many more that I wouldn't have if I had become Family Court judge."

Prior to being hired as the Catholic Charities director, she worked Kentucky Legal Aid for eight years, where she represented low-income clients from a six-county area. When she left, she was Legal Aid's managing attorney.

Montalvo-Gesser, 43, credited the Holy Spirit for leading her to the Catholic Charities director position.

"I had a job I loved at Legal Aid," Montalvo-Gesser said. "I thought I was going to be there until I died or retired. ...But after the interview with the bishop, I knew this was where I needed to be."

Adoptions were once the main focus of the local Catholic Charities office.

But Montalvo-Gesser said the Diocese made the decision before she was hired to end the adoption program because children were no longer coming in to make it economically feasible.

So during her first six months, she's been refocusing the office and modeling it after other Catholic Charities.

The new direction is offering immigration services, integrating refugee efforts, helping victims of human trafficking and serving other vulnerable populations such as the homeless and the poor in the parish communities.

"...All of these things Catholic Charities do around the United States," Montalvo-Gesser said. "But (they're) not things our Catholic Charities has been doing."

Montalvo-Gesser said the vision is to turn Catholic Charities into the Diocese's "social justice arm."

"It's all my passion because I was affected by poverty," Montalvo-Gesser said. "And my father was an immigrant."

Catholic Charities serves the societal needs of both Catholics and non-Catholics.

Among its services are counseling resources for individuals, couples and families; St. Gerard Life Home -- a home for girls experiencing a crisis pregnancy who have chosen life for their babies and immigration legal services.

Currently, Montalvo-Gesser is the only employee of her office.

Montalvo-Gesser described herself as the "player-coach" but said that the Catholic Charities office is in the process of hiring a paralegal and an AmeriCorps VISTA position.

"Hopefully with those two components, we can build up the program," Montalvo-Gesser said.

Catholic Charities also works with St. Vincent de Paul to help those with immediate temporal needs such as clothing and paying utility bills.

Anyone needing Catholic Charities assistance can call at 270-852-8328 or email susan.gesser@pastoral.org.

Don Wilkins, dwilkins@messenger-inquirer, 270-691-7299.

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