At the end of July, Donna Thomas will retire from her position as department director of Caring Choices at Catholic Charities. That day represents a culmination of 30 years of serving families in Middle Tennessee and of greatly expanding the role of the agency’s pregnancy and adoption counseling services.
Thomas had been working as a case manager for Tennessee’s Department of Public Welfare, now the Department of Children’s Services, when she heard about an open position at Catholic Charities. She began as a part-time contract worker, conducting home studies for families that were hoping to adopt.
“Initially, the thing that was such a draw for me was that I could still do the kind of work I was trained to do, and wanted to do, but I could do it part-time and still have time with my children,” recalled Thomas.
In a fairly short time her hours grew, as well as her responsibilities. After two years at full-time status, Thomas transitioned into the lead position when then-director Anne Kane retired.
She was well prepared, educationally, for that promotion: Thomas had a bachelor’s degree in sociology, with a concentration in social welfare from Lambuth University. To qualify as director, Thomas completed her master’s in guidance and counseling psychology from Tennessee State University.
Going that extra mile for her job was important to Thomas, who had found her niche at Catholic Charities. “For me, I felt like it was really a place where people were encouraged to use best practices and give quality services to people,” Thomas said. “It was also – even though I’m not Catholic myself – a place where your religion could play a part in how you did your daily work, and how you treated others.”
Under Thomas’s direction, the agency evolved significantly. “It is clearly not an exaggeration to say that Donna Thomas, directly and indirectly, has touched the lives of thousands of Middle Tennessee families over the course of her 30 years with our agency,” said Bill Sinclair, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee.
When Thomas came on board in the early 1990s, the agency only did pregnancy counseling, domestic adoptions and a very few international adoptions. The international adoption program has grown phenomenally, bolstered by Caring Choices receiving a Hague Accreditation in 2012.
“The Hague Accreditation was basically set in place to be sure that the parents’ rights to adopt were dealt with in legal and correct ways, and that families were prepared to deal with the issues of adopting a child from another country,” she said. “Again, this is something that really focuses on what’s best practice for these families, the children they’re bringing home, and the countries they’re coming from.”
The agency will be going through Hague reaccreditation next spring. Although retiring, Thomas is planning to put in some part-time hours to help the agency maintain this important distinction.
One of the most noteworthy agency “upgrades” under Thomas’ tenure was the development of the Adoption Support and Preservation program, which provides intensive counseling and therapies for families that have adopted children through the state foster care system.
“These kids were disrupting out of their adoptive homes at a rate between 14 and 16 percent,” explained Thomas. “For the families we’re working with it’s less than 1 percent. It helps to educate these families on the trauma that these children have experienced, how to deal with their children given those traumas, and any attachment issues they might have.”
The Adoption Support and Preservation program, which serves Middle and West Tennessee, also actively recruits families to adopt children out of the foster care system.
Of course, a robust foster care initiative and an expanded international adoption program requires additional, qualified staff. When Thomas began her Catholic Charities career there were three to four staffers serving pregnancy and adoption counseling clients. Now there are two employees that primarily work with domestic adoptions; two that do international adoptions; and 10 in the Adoption Support and Preservation program. Additionally, four part-timers assist with domestic adoptions and international adoptions as needed.
Starting Aug. 1, that large, accomplished team will have a new leader. Collen Mayer, who took over the Social Services division when Eileen Beehan retired, will be the department director over both programs. Jan Clifton will continue to supervise the Adoption Support and Preservation program, and Julie Bolles will coordinate the domestic and international adoption programs. “Both are excellent, skilled, energetic and fabulous,” said Thomas. “They will do a wonderful job.”
Even knowing she was leaving the agency in good hands, retiring was not an easy decision. However, five eight- and nine-year-olds helped. “I’m truly looking forward to spending more time with my grandchildren,” Thomas said. “I’m also looking forward to not setting an alarm clock! I just felt like it was time for somebody else to take the reins. The people that are coming on board are so good, it’s going to be better than ever. I’m excited for them, and I’m excited for the agency.”
There will be an event to honor Thomas 3-5 p.m. on Wednesday, July 29, at Catholic Charities’ offices at 30 White Bridge Road in Nashville. “I’m threatening not to show up!” said Thomas. “But if I don’t, Bill’s going to be really mad.”
That is highly unlikely, as her executive director holds Thomas in high esteem. “Whether the woman is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, the couple wanting to grow their family via adoption, the parents-to-be working their way through the challenges of processes and paperwork tied to international adoptions, or the foster children who have been placed in ‘forever homes,’ Donna has, one way or another, had a link to all of them,” said Sinclair. “It is a tribute to Donna and her tremendously deep level of caring that her professional career has been devoted to others, especially children who may not have had anyone else to speak on their behalf.”