Vince Colonno retires as CEO of Catholic Charities after 11 years leading the non-profit
Vince Colonno retires as CEO of Catholic Charities after 11 years leading the non-profit
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Vince Colonno, who has been the chief executive officer for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany for the past 11 years, is retiring on June 30. This caps a 48-year career in public service, most of it spent at the Albany County Department of Social Services, where he rose to commissioner. Colonno, 69, has been married to his wife, Linda, for 46 years and they have two children: Andrea, who works for the Albany County Department of Children, Youth and Families, and Vinnie, who works in SEFCU’s Mortgage Services. Their daughter-in-law, Dulce, also works for the Albany County Department of Children, Youth and Families, and they have two grandchildren, Vincent, 9, and Matteo, 7. Colonno sat down with Mike Matvey, editor of The Evangelist, to talk about his upbringing, his long career at the Department of Social Services and how he made his way to Catholic Charities in this latest edition of Catholic Voices.

TE: Where were you born?
VC
: I was born in Brady Hospital and raised in Albany in the shadows of Bleecker Stadium on 3rd Street. I went to Blessed Sacrament for grade school and I graduated from Cardinal McCloskey High School. The teachers I had were outstanding and I made some good connections, especially in high school. I was involved in a lot of activities as well as sports. I had a great, great time.

TE: What is your earliest Catholic memory?
VC:
I was an altar boy and we used to do the funeral Masses. They would say you are in the “funeral crew.” So you check the obits and say, “There is a Mass at Blessed Sacrament.” We also used to always serve the Masses at St. Anne’s Institute, which is down the street from Blessed Sacrament. That is when they had the chapel there and they had the nuns from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd order. So the head nun passed away. I was probably 10 years old and our funeral crew had to go do that Mass and we had never seen a coffin before and the Mass was an open coffin. We walked in there and we were nudging each other (and saying) “Look at this.” We couldn’t take our eyes off the casket. … It was my first funeral. Don’t forget, kids weren’t allowed, not even to the wakes. 

TE: Did you go to college in Albany?
VC:
I graduated from McCloskey and I went to Albany Junior College for two years and graduated with an associate’s degree in Business Administration. During college, I ended up working in the summers building the south mall, which is now the Empire State Plaza, as a Laborer with Laborer’s Local 190. It worked out so well for me that I didn’t go back to college right away and worked full time as a laborer down there. Then after I got the job as an examiner with Albany County Social Services in 1974, I moved up a little bit into the Welfare Investigators doing child protective services and welfare fraud cases. During that time, there were a few jobs that I would be interviewed for but I didn’t get it because I didn’t have a four-year degree. Luckily for me at the time, Albany County paid for education so I went back to school. I got my bachelor’s degree at SUNY Empire State College in Community and Human Services and then my master’s at Russell Sage all while I was employed by the county.

TE: What drew you to your first job at Social Services with the county?
VC: At the time, I knew construction wasn’t going to be long term and I always liked the social-work field. The first step going into social services — if I had a four-year degree — I would have been as a caseworker, but with a two-year degree, I went in as a social welfare examiner, which is benefits determination. So, I’d help people get benefits like food stamps, Medicaid, or financial support. Then you move up. I was examiner, then I went to special investigator and attorney’s trial assistant. From there, I became their HR director, the deputy Social Services commissioner, and they moved me over to be commissioner for Aging, and then I came back and was commissioner of Social Services. I left after 37 years and came here.

TE: What was it like working there?
VC:
The reality of it is, all I ever wanted to do was help people. It was all at different levels. I would say as an examiner, I was helping to put them on to get them assistance. As an investigator, I am literally out there saying, “Oh, no. This is wrong.” And the thing of it was — it’s probably similar to here — they didn’t make a lot of money. The people that were there either wanted to be there or they were using that as a stepping stone to go to the state, which usually happened. We met all kinds of people … but we saw some sad things, too, particularly when they moved us into doing the benefits, and we addressed a lot of homelessness. In reception there would be fights and the security had to be brought in and the sheriffs were there a lot of the time … I have seen cases where there were murders, kids beat up. There were a lot of good stories, too, but you just had to keep moving forward.
It was a learning experience. You always knew that if you just help one person, it would be a good day. I worked with some good people and my bosses were outstanding. Commissioner Jack Fahey and Phil Murray, the attorney that ran the legal division, I think the both of them connived all the time because they would lure me into applying for a job and then they would say, “No, because you don’t have your degree, so maybe you better go get that degree.” They trusted me and moving up into administration and  running HR, it gave me a lot of perspective, particularly on the employee-relations piece and dealing with the unions. As deputy commissioner, I was back overseeing children services, which was my bailiwick. Watching staff, what they had to do, some caseworkers would be crying because the cases would be difficult, but all in all, we did a lot of good work down there.

TE: Why did you decide to retire?
VC:
At the time, I was DSS commissioner and the county executive was Mike Breslin, a great guy, and he wasn’t going to run for another term. I could have stayed because Social Services commissioners, by law, have appointments, it is not political. I thought about it and said to my wife, “Maybe it’s time to take a look around.” I’d always kid about the not-for-profit side, that maybe I’d go on the other side of the glass there might be some opportunities. And I thought it might be time. The county was offering an incentive and I was eligible for it, so I retired in 2011.

TE: So how long before you started working at Catholic Charities?
VC:
There were a couple not-for-profits that I had my eye on and I said, “Maybe I will apply here.” And then my sister-in-law called me and she said, “They posted a job for CEO of Catholic Charities.” And I said, “What am I going to do at Catholic Charities?” I have a Catholic background, but I didn’t see myself replacing Sister Maureen (Joyce, RSM, and CEO of Catholic Charities, who died in 2010). And I loved her! So then I got thinking about it and said to Linda, “I haven’t been in an interview since God knows when, so I will apply there, at Catholic Charities, get a feel for things and then I will go where I think I might want to go.” I did the interview and I got the job and didn’t go any place else.

TE: What was the transition like? Was it different?
VC:
It was and it wasn’t, helping people was still there. What was different was that I had a little more leeway now that I was outside the Civil Service Law and the parameters of the county legislature, state regs. That was probably the one thing they would say, “You can do this.” And I would say, “I can?” … We had a good crew. It was just them getting used to me and I wanted to make sure I was good because I knew whose footsteps I was following in. Bishop (Howard J.) Hubbard, Bishop (Edward B.) Scharfenberger and the board were always very supportive. I have never had a bad experience. We have done good here.

TE: Can you talk about the vocational aspect of working at CC?
VC
: Originally before the pandemic, I would always say the people here are not millionaires, they don’t make a lot. They are here because they want to be here. I didn’t really have a turnover problem. They are here because they believed in the mission. They like what they do and they go the extra mile. Then the pandemic hit and they impressed me so much. We put some people up in hotels because they all expressed to us, and we felt the same way, “We don’t want to go back and infect our families. We just want to be safe.” Nobody knew what was going on at the time but we stayed open. The phrase that we use now is, “The light never went off.”

TE: Do you think people are aware of the wealth of services that Charities provides?
VC:
That is the thing that I always say, many people just feel we are just in this area here. They don’t know that we do the 14 counties. And that is why, in our 100th anniversary, one of the initiatives was “No Wrong Door.” I basically wanted to create a system, if you come in in Ilion, we know about you in Albany if for some reason you end up there. We have you here and we are going to take care of you. We know what you wanted, we know what you are going to need, and if we can’t provide it, we know where we can get you to.

TE: Seems these services are more important than ever.
VC
: Absolutely, yes. The thing of it is, what makes me feel a little bit more satisfied is the fact of the realization that its addressing social determinants (the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age) that might make this thing work. The social determinants might keep the wolf away from the door and that was never the case before. I think it is now. What is it? It’s housing, it’s hunger. If we can provide the upfront services, then that keeps you away from relying on the system, that keeps you independent and thriving. You are starting to see funders that are recognizing that. Now, we, Catholic Charities with the menu of services that we have, address social determinants and as a result we have done pretty well. With CC MOVE, the original intent was to model it after what is called the Padua Project down in Fort Worth, Texas. You basically come in and it’s like a food pantry. We know you need this, sit down and talk to us for a minute. What can we do that could assist you that might get you a little more help? If we get you to that point, perhaps maybe you are going to be on your way. Let’s work with you a little bit. That is what was supposed to happen. Then the pandemic hits and CC MOVE becomes the nutrition front and it has worked out well. You are happy and you are sad. You are happy that you have the resources and it is sad that you are feeding 500-to-600 mouths in a morning. But the good thing is that we are able to do it.

TE: Talk about how no one is turned away from Charities? This is just not a Catholic thing.
VC
: We serve everyone. With the immigration piece that is going on right now, the “illegals” so to speak, we would get calls — “I am hearing that the donations that you are getting take care of illegal immigrants?” — I say, “I will be honest with you, I don’t really know. We don’t do means tests (to make sure someone is eligible).” A person comes to our door and we look to help them. It is that simple. It’s true, we serve everybody.

TE: Any initiatives that you implemented that you are particularly proud of?
VC
: There are a few, the CC MOVE, of course, was one. With our initiatives in the 100th anniversary celebration, my God, we created the affordable housing units and we were looking to enhance our Emergency Assistance, but I like the fact that we were able to expand and create some new agencies. Care Coordination Services serves those with chronic diseases; it used to be called Catholic Charities AIDS Services and was specifically formed by Sister Maureen back then to serve the HIV population. I felt that we could do more (with substance abuse and alcoholism) and we did. The LEAD program, the Law Enforcement Assistance Diversion program, they are doing so great, very proud of them. Tri-County Services was formed because the original Albany-Rensselaer Catholic Charities was broken up and came here to the Pastoral Center. I said they didn’t belong here and we should create our own agency. We decided to put a new agency out there (Herrick Street in Rensselaer) to do basic needs and emergency assistance. I called Bishop (Hubbard) and said, “We are going to cover Albany, Rensselaer and Schenectady. What do you think we should call it?” And he said, “Tri-County.” And I said, “That is good enough for me.” 

We had a Caregiver Respite Services Agency, it was a very small agency that just operated out of Albany and Rensselaer. The senior population is probably the most predominant population to be served and I knew that coming from Albany County. I felt that one of the goals that I wanted to do was expand Charities’ footprints throughout the 14 counties which we have been doing. The senior population is one that I wanted to focus on and we renamed the agency Senior and Caregiver Support Services, where they predominantly did services in Schenectady County — Meals on Wheels, congregate dining, transportation. We expanded out to add some caregiver services. We are now doing services in Columbia and Otsego counties called Aging Life Services, which is an intense case management model. We are looking to expand on that, and those are the things that I like knowing; that we have expanded our footprint, that we have done more. We certainly expanded our service with Emergency Assistance. It has been unbelievable. … We are busy. And the scary part is, there’s an increased demand for our services and I know the resources are tough to come by. We are fortunate because we have a great staff that goes after grants, but we also have a great donor commitment.

TE: Can you talk about your successor, Sister Betsy Van Deusen, CSJ?
VC
: Everybody knows Sister Betsy. She is quite a lady. Very dedicated to the mission, and that is an understatement in all honesty. Highly regarded. We have a lot of laughs with her. But she gets down to business, she is not the clown that I am, so I am sure this place will be in much better shape. I have a lot of respect for her, I am happy for her and I am sure she will do a great job.

TE: Do you have any retirement plans?
VC:
I will do some consultant work, but I am involved in a few boards. I am on the St. Anne’s Institute Board and the Avila Retirement Community Board and I am also on the SEFCU Board. I am vice chairman of that board, so that impending merger (with CAP COM) will keep me busy. I used to teach at SUNY Empire State. I taught Managing Health and Human Services at upper grad level and I am thinking about possibly going back to that. I am a hacker but I love to golf and I am very intrigued by this pickleball thing, so I am going to try that.

TE: What is your life philosophy?
VC:
The thing with me is I really would like to take a step back and take a look; things might not be as bad as you think. That is easier said than done, but if something is going on, I say, “Alright let’s see what we can do,” rather than fly off the handle. If we could just take a step back, I think we might be able to do a few more good things than what we are doing now.