December 26, 2022 News & Features » Cover Story

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A Safety Net 

Karen Stanley leaves a legacy of caring at CARITAS.

click to enlarge The president and chief executive officer of CARITAS, Karen Stanley (far right) is set to retire at the end of December, after two decades spent transforming one of the area's most reliable and caring safety nets for the unhoused.

Scott Elmquist

The president and chief executive officer of CARITAS, Karen Stanley (far right) is set to retire at the end of December, after two decades spent transforming one of the area's most reliable and caring safety nets for the unhoused.

When it comes to people who are unhoused, Karen Stanley has found that there is no stereotype. "It can happen to anyone."

The president and CEO of CARITAS, one of the region's largest human service providers, argues that some people simply lack a safety net. "If you or I have a 200 dollar bill that we can't pay, we could probably find a family member or a friend that could front us the money. But some people don't have those networks in place to help them."

Stanley, 60, is set to retire at the end of December after more than two decades running an organization that has grown to be one of the area's most reliable and caring safety nets. Some argue that CARITAS has been successful because it has had a creative, active leader, one described by Dena Frith Moore as "a force of nature." Moore, a former president of the CARITAS board of directors, says Stanley is "indefatigable. When she sees the opportunity to do something positive, she will not be stopped."

To fully appreciate the non-profit leader's impact on the ecosystem of houseless and substance abuse care in the Richmond region, one must remember how Stanley found the nonprofit CARITAS when she first came aboard as a volunteer board member.

"Back then, we were a 22-week, evening and winter-only emergency shelter, and it was kind of a crapshoot," Stanley recalls. "Those in need would line up at one of the area congregations serving as intake sites." If one of these six participating churches had a bed available, she explains, the person would get it. If there wasn't, they were sent to the next site. "There wasn't a lot of coordination." At that time, the volunteer-run shelter operation, which had started in 1987, would close from April to November.

click to enlarge karenstanley2.jpg

Transformative role

When Stanley became the executive director in 2000, CARITAS was transitioning into being a year-round program. "My first role was to recruit congregations to fill that gap in the other weeks in the calendar year" -- essentially, to find more beds for the homeless.

Over the next decade, CARITAS added addiction recovery programs to its mission and expanded out. "We saw a need," Stanley explains. In 2007, she took on an added job as the director of The Healing Place, a substance abuse rehabilitation program for men, and then merged THP with CARITAS. It has seen more than 9,500 successful addiction recoveries to date. The organization also acquired the Embrace Richmond Furniture Bank in 2008, offering free household items to the needy, and started the CARITAS Works program in 2011 to help recovering addicts get acclimated back into the workforce.

"If you did a background check on me, you would not hire me," states Charles Fitzgerald, a CARITAS board member and former recovered addict who went through the Works program. "Here, I got my first opportunity for employment and it made me feel good about myself. This is where you get your first shot."

When asked for words to describe Stanley, Victor Branch calls her "visionary," matching the thoughts of others interviewed for this story.

The mark of a good leader is knowing how to effectively use every good break you get, adds Branch, the president of Bank of America's Richmond region. It was a 2009 "Neighborhood Builders" grant from BOA -- and some extra diligence by Stanley -- that led to one of CARITAS' key rehab programs.

Neighborhood Builders is a competitive grant program that allots $200,000 to worthy nonprofits and offers intensive leadership training to the executive director in board building, fundraising, and company organization.

"Karen saw a program in Chicago when she went to the first portion of her leadership training, and then went back after her seven month training was over to study it, and she replicated that program here. And that's how we now have CARITAS Works."

"If you can spell it out and make sense," Stanley says, "you'll find that there are people in the Richmond region who will stand up and make it happen."

click to enlarge In 2020, after a long gestation period and at a cost of $28 million, CARITAS turned a dilapidated former Philip Morris [manufacturing plant] into the 150,000-square-foot CARITAS Center. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • In 2020, after a long gestation period and at a cost of $28 million, CARITAS turned a dilapidated former Philip Morris [manufacturing plant] into the 150,000-square-foot CARITAS Center.

A life of service

In 2020, after a long gestation period, and at a cost of $28 million, CARITAS turned a dilapidated former Philip Morris manufacturing plant into the 150,000-square-foot CARITAS Center. It now houses the 160-bed William M. Walker Healing Place for Women and room and board for 47 recovery residents of both sexes.

"The deal was so hard to do," says Moore. "CARITAS had to raise a ton of philanthropic dollars and then had to execute on Newmarket and historic tax credits in order to make it affordable. It was an incredibly complex transaction but she was unafraid of it. She just dug in and learned tax credits and surrounded herself with good advisors."

With the CARITAS Center in place, the organization currently serves 3,300 people in need each year on a $7.4 million annual operating budget. It not only works with 300 different community partners -- from churches to other nonprofits -- CARITAS employs 50 full-time and 50 part-time employees, with hundreds of volunteers also pitching in. It's a long way from the old days when a ragtag group shuttled people in and out of churches on a bus.

"She's been strategic and collaborative," says Karen O' Brien a.k.a. "the other Karen." The chief operating officer of CARITAS has worked alongside Stanley for 14 years and has marveled at her style. "Karen is able to bring the right people to the table by building relationships and having conversations. And she's always put the homework in. I mean, she'd be out three, four nights a week meeting people and going to events and fundraising. She's very likable but she's also not afraid to speak her mind. The community needs that."

click to enlarge Karen Stanley and "the other Karen," the CEO for CARITAS, Karen O' Brien. The pair have worked together for 14 years. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Karen Stanley and "the other Karen," the CEO for CARITAS, Karen O' Brien. The pair have worked together for 14 years.

Born in New Jersey, and raised mostly in Ohio, Stanley moved around a lot as a kid because of her father's job in sales. She attended high school in Oklahoma and attended Oklahoma State. "And then I got the hell out," she laughs.

Stanley came to Richmond in 1993 from Casper, Wyoming. She'd worked in advertising sales for a TV station, which led her to being a media representative for Casper's CrimeStoppers program. "This took me into law enforcement." She moved to the region to be an information retrieval specialist -- "a real exciting title," she laughs -- for Chesterfield police.

That led to the position of domestic violence coordinator for the department, a position funded by a COPS grant. The problem, she recalls, was that she was becoming too attached to the survivors, "helping them through their process and making sure they were safe and sitting with them in court, that was never supposed to be part of my job." Four years in, after joining the CARITAS board to advise on family counseling, she left the police. "After my second homicide-suicide, I had enough of that."

The experience was frustrating, but she says that everything she'd done up to that point had put her in the perfect position to lead an organization like CARITAS. "Understanding the police, the court process, the media, all of these little things added up to prepare me for this job."

Policies that work

"Karen has been so effective in the private sector," says Victor Branch. "Being a voice and a champion for the voiceless, the homeless. She's the quintessential servant leader, so determined and driven that you just get caught up in her aura."

"She's an agenda driver," says Moore. "She would start almost every board meeting with something that humanized the programs. We'd often have someone who had participated, or benefited, or worked in the program speak to the board. It was a tangible reminder of why we were doing this work and she was careful to populate the board with people of different backgrounds and different expertise."

Board member Fitzgerald describes himself as someone who "came off the streets." In 2006, the native Richmonder entered the program with a serious drug addiction, eventually kicking his habit cold turkey -- "that's what this program is about, complete abstinence." He went on to attend J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and did an internship with a CARITAS case worker to find out about the shelter system. "Once I was clean, I got curious about people like Karen. What makes her operate? What makes her care about someone like me?"

Fitzgerald got a job at Northminster Baptist Church, where he helped to provide beds for unhoused women through CARITAS. He started to realize the enormity of the organization's mission, and how Stanley's personable, one-on-one style helped to shape it. "She knows how to connect to those people with the same passion and drive that she has," he says. "And she doesn't look down on the people in the program. That's what touched me. That she was willing to take some time to listen and find out what was going on with me."

click to enlarge Cedric Overton, a board member at CARITAS, admitted it won't be easy to fill Stanley's position. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Cedric Overton, a board member at CARITAS, admitted it won't be easy to fill Stanley's position.

Stanley also concentrated on policies that work, as opposed to what might get funding from the feds or the state. "I learned that from Karen my first year," says O'Brien. "We don't take much government funding because as soon as you do, you have to do things the way they want you to, not necessarily what needs to be done. You can get so wrapped up in reporting and checking the boxes and dotting the i's, you forget about the people and what they need."

She also hasn't been afraid to make bold decisions. "I wasn't a huge proponent of merging the two," says Dan Walker, a longtime donor who served on the board of The Healing Place, and helped make the Walker Healing Place for Women a reality. "But now I have to admit that it makes sense. I was just resistant to change. CARITAS and The Healing Place did have similar interests with housing and everything, so we put them all in one roof with combined boards and finances."

While the new Healing Place for Women is housed in the CARITAS Center on Stockton Street, the THP for Men and the men's shelter is still on Dinwiddie Avenue. Richmond's program joins two other Healing Places- the others are in Louisville, Kentucky and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. "It's an extremely successful recovery program with a very low recidivism rate," Walker says. "Approximately 70% of people go through the entire one-year program where other types of [approaches] see much lower averages."

"The addiction program works because it's run by people who actually went through recovery or suffered homelessness," says Fitzgerald. "Who is going to know an addict better than another addict?"

"What's the secret sauce of CARITAS?" Stanley asks. "It's a unique organization. Twenty-five percent of our staff have been participants in one of our programs, so there's a special feeling when you walk in the door, a family environment."

click to enlarge Karen Stanley greets well-wishers at a recent open house bon voyage for her retirement.
  • Karen Stanley greets well-wishers at a recent open house bon voyage for her retirement.

Bon voyage hugs

It's a Tuesday morning hug fest at the CARITAS Center, as several dozen watery-eyed community partners and supporters gather at an open house to say bon voyage to Karen Stanley.

"There's a lot of love in this room but It took a lot of love to build this place," said Kelly Chopus, who will serve as interim executive director until March 31st or Karen's replacement is found. Board member Cedric Overton admitted that it won't be easy to fill that position permanently. "We have to find someone who can not only be like Karen but to take us to the next level. That's quite a challenge."

Al Jackson, the founding program director of The Healing Place, made the trip from Louisville to honor his former comrade. "I appreciate all of the work you've done, this facility that we're in. You're not retiring, I know," he told her from the podium. "You're just taking a little break."

Stanley, who has already resettled in Maine, thanked coworkers, the volunteers, "her team." "It's been an honor to experience and be a part of people's journeys during the toughest times, and then to see a light come back on in their eyes."

Reggie Gordon, the deputy chief administrative officer (DCAO) for the city of Richmond, talked of Stanley's trailblazing view of "strategic alliances." Other nonprofits could learn from it, he postulated. "She was the one who said, 'Hey, maybe my organization can merge with another organization and we can leverage the capacity to get things done. That never happens, folks, and she did it. As for fundraising she can walk into any room and talk to any politician and make the case and get the money. It's a skill, and she's got it."

Gordon continued as the outgoing director beamed from her chair. "We need to clone Karen Stanley," he said loudly, and the smiling crowd cheered.

Corrections: In an initial version of the story, we misspelled Dena Frith Moore's name; also Reggie Gordon works for the City of Richmond not CARITAS; and we included an acronym explanation for CARITAS which is no longer in use. Style regrets the errors.

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