Agency's president fought poverty - Catholic Courier
Carolyn Portanova, longtime Catholic Family Center president and CEO, will retire at the end of 2011. Carolyn Portanova, longtime Catholic Family Center president and CEO, will retire at the end of 2011.

Agency’s president fought poverty

Fran Weisberg has a quote from Carolyn A. Portanova, president and CEO of Catholic Family Center, hanging on her office wall: "Trust your crazy ideas."

Weisberg brought Portanova’s advice with her when she left Catholic Family Center (CFC), where she had been vice president of external affairs and strategic directions, to become executive director of the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency .

Weisberg said it was Portanova’s focus on thinking creatively to improve services that enabled CFC to grow from a small agency to the largest human service agency in Monroe County. Its budget grew from $3.8 million in 1988 to more than $27 million now, and it serves 53,000 people a year.

Portanova accomplished this feat using warmth, passion and a get-it-done attitude that mobilized her staff, Weisberg said.

"There’s this real sense of connection, and we are all in this together to make life better for the clients we serve," she remarked.

Yet Portanova’s tenure at CFC is drawing to a close. After 37 years with the agency, she is retiring Jan. 1, 2012, and Mark A. Wickham, the CEO of Lakeview Mental Health in Geneva, will succeed her as president and CEO of the agency.

Pausing to reflect on her years at the agency, Portanova, 66, said she started out in the same way as many of CFC’s clients — with next to nothing.

After graduating in 1967 from Pennsylvania State University a term early, Portanova landed in a Park Avenue apartment in Rochester. She knew no one in town and had no car. Each day she took the bus to her job as a second-grade teacher filling in for a teacher on maternity leave.

It was in city schools that she first saw how counseling changed the lives of kids who were struggling, Portanova said. She did advanced study in counseling when earning her master’s degree in education at the University of Rochester. In 1974 she took a job as a drug counselor in CFC’s Restart program, which was then a small program with five staff members.

"My job was to go into the Monroe County Jail and help identify alternatives to incarceration," Portanova said.

At that time most addictions programs focused on alcohol, and drug addicts were jailed rather than treated, she said. Soon she began to advocate for drug-treatment alternatives to incarceration, which she said save public money, and more importantly, save lives and help people.

"We (as society) still see illegal drugs as a criminal-justice issue," Portanova said. "If you are addicted to heroin, you are a criminal. (But) if you are addicted to alcohol, it’s a health problem."

After about a year, Portanova became a supervisor with the agency and later became the director of Restart Substance Abuse Services. It was in that role that she helped to pioneer CFC’s residential drug-treatment programs, including Liberty Manor, which opened in 1987 to serve pregnant women and women in treatment with young children. In a grant request to the the state’s Division of Substance Abuse Services, she noted that moms were reluctant to seek residential treatment because they could not bring their children with them.

"We wrote our proposal to have moms in treatment and to give priority to pregnant moms to give birth to drug-free babies," Portanova said.

The success of Liberty Manor, which has received national recognition, led to more CFC treatment programs, including in- and out-patient rehabilitation, case management, job-training and programs specifically for women, men and Latinos.

In February 1989, Portanova became CEO of CFC, which was merging with the Genesee Valley Office of Social Ministry and Catholic Youth Organization. Challenges included getting a unified phone system and getting all staff to work the same hours. While she ironed out these merger logistics, Portanova said she tried to keep sight of the potential to do things differently. She said her vision was to have the agency advocate for solutions that attack poverty at its roots. For example, CFC’s advocacy efforts were part of the successful push to revoke the state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws, which had imposed stiff prison sentences for drug crimes.

"One of the most important things was bringing people together to have open dialogue," Portanova said. "I’ve never been afraid of people asking tough questions. People got engaged and all of us together worked on solutions."

Portanova’s dynamic and caring manner has fostered devotion among her staff, said Jack Balinsky, diocesan director of Catholic Charities.

"I’ve seen how wonderfully appreciative of her leadership the staff of Catholic Family Center is," Balinsky said.

Marv Mich, director of CFC’s Office of Social Policy and Research, said Portanova always ensured that CFC cared for its employees in the same way it cared for its clients, including by paying a living wage, he said.

"We are trying to make Catholic Family Center not just talk about (just wages), but live it out, which is not always easy especially when budgets are tight," Mich said.

Portanova said her future remains open. She plans to stay in the Rochester area, and she’s looking forward to reading a book whenever she wants, cleaning out closets, taking photographs and setting her own schedule.

Yet she said she wants to stay involved in the community and to continue to address poverty. She said she is leaving the agency financially stable and mission-focused.

"Jesus said to us you will be known by your deeds and your values," Portanova said. "There is no doubting what we are about here."

Tags: Catholic Charities
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