Bland plays big role at Catholic Outreach

Sister Karen Bland is director of Grand Valley Catholic Outreach.


Name: Sister Karen Bland

Age: “I don’t usually tell anybody my age. I don’t want anybody to think it’s time for me to retire.”

Education: Bachelor’s degree in languages from Mundelein College; master’s degree in education from DePaul University; master’s degree in Spanish from Middlebury College in Vermont; master’s degree in theology from Wheeling Jesuit University; doctorate in multicultural education from the University of Colorado

The house at 248 White Ave. long ago was torn down, but the mission that percolated there has snowballed since Sister Karen Bland entered the scene.

Grand Valley Catholic Outreach emerged as two Franciscan sisters feeding the homeless, handing out sack lunches from the back door of their downtown home. That effort has been transformed into a churning machine of compassion fueled by more than 500 local volunteers, who feed, clothe and offer financial assistance to more than 100,000 people a year.

With Bland at the helm — she has been the nonprofit organization’s executive director for the past 12 years — donations of food, clothing and funds materialize seamlessly. Like clockwork, volunteers daily crank out breakfast and lunch at the soup kitchen, and others staff a day center down the street where homeless folks shower, do laundry and keep out of the cold for a bit.

“Anybody who likes to be involved with success can join us,” Bland matter-of-factly said, with a smile, speaking from her sun-splashed office recently.

Bland, a longtime educator and administrator, headed up her order, the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, before taking up the role at Catholic Outreach.

As a sister, Bland has been given the blessing by her order to maximize her talents, although the options for employment seemed limited three decades ago.

“In those days the doors were open (for women) in education and health,” she said. “I was always annoyed that women were teachers and that men could be teachers for three years and then be administrators.”

At Catholic Outreach, Bland’s calming presence and quiet leadership are soothing to many of the community’s least fortunate who find their way through the doors.

A clean, renovated building, where birds once careened in out and out of skylights, now serves as a pillar of respect to the downtrodden, she said.

“I’ve been in places in need ... ,” she said with a shudder as her voice trailed off.  “If you go into a beautiful space that’s clean, you’re going to feel better about yourself.”

Instead of abstractly talking about ending homelessness, Catholic Outreach quietly has been dismantling the need. The dignified, 23-unit St. Benedict’s Place complex in the 200 block of White Avenue is a testament to that. In her plans is another housing unit, this one to be created for homeless war veterans. Never mind that the organization did not receive a competitive grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs to build the facility. Bland already is onto other avenues of funding, fulfilling her role of keeping tabs on the organization’s nearly $2 million budget.

“It’s my job to raise the money, so they can spend it,” Bland said, cheerily. “We’re just going to build it.”


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