On an overcast December day, two women were in the process of making the hand-off of a very important job for the Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage.
Susan Bomalaski, who had served as the executive director of Catholic Social Services for nearly nine years, was cleaning out her office on her final day. Meanwhile, Lisa Aquino, who took over the position on Dec. 1, was continuing to learn the nuts and bolts of one of Alaska’s premier social service agencies.
When the Catholic Anchor caught up with each of them, it appeared that both bring passion, commitment and skills that make the leadership transition a smooth one.
Bomalaski, a native of upstate New York, was living in Texas with her Air Force husband when he accepted a position at Elmendorf Air Force Base in early 2006. Bomalaski is also an Air Force veteran, a Cornell graduate with two master’s degrees and a doctorate in counseling.
It seemed providential, she said, that when it came time to move she noticed the executive director’s position was open at CSS.
“God places us where our talents and gifts can be used,” she said, saying she has found the job to be “the most rewarding position I’ve ever had.”
“I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by good people who want to serve the poor and vulnerable, advocate for social justice, and be guided by Catholic social teaching,” she added.
Bomalaski gave in to a moment of emotion on her last day, as her voice broke in recalling words that touched her deeply.
“The most meaningful feedback I’ve received is from people we serve who say to me, ‘Thank you for speaking on our behalf.’ That’s an overwhelming responsibility.”
Her time leading the agency, which annually serves more than 20,000 people in 10 separate programs, brought growth and change.
Among her accomplishments she cites “strengthening our relations in the community – with funders, other non-profits, the municipality, with the assembly and with the legislature.”
She also worked to increase partnerships with parishes, and said she paid particular attention to improving working conditions for the staff, including raising entry-level salaries.
But perhaps Bomalaski leaves her biggest mark in the area of facility improvements. Clare House, a shelter for women and children, opened a brand new and much larger facility to accommodate more women, not just in short-term crisis situations, but those who need longer term help.
And the St. Francis House Food Pantry has been enlarged and improved to provide what Bomalaski calls “a better shopping experience” for those who seek supplemental food. Improvements were also made to the CSS Center on 20th Avenue in Anchorage.
But her high-visibility position didn’t come without its challenges.
“The biggest challenge was working together with the community on the issues surrounding homelessness,” Bomalaski said.
The Brother Francis Shelter, which moved into a new, modern facility near the site of its previous renovated warehouse in downtown Anchorage in 2005, has been a source of community debate among its neighbors ever since it opened in 1982.
Bomalaski expended much energy working with the neighborhood and with neighborhood associations to ensure cooperation.
“Homelessness is not decreasing,” she said.
Indeed, the social issues surrounding homelessness have prompted CSS to focus on employment opportunities and employment training for its clients, including computer skills and case management that focuses on helping people help themselves.
Like her predecessor, Aquino comes to the executive director position with a strong academic and work background, and a sense that the CSS post was meant for her.
“I am most excited to be working with this amazing agency,” she said. “Many of the programs of CSS draw on my public health background, and draw me to those who are poorest and most vulnerable.”
An Anchorage native, she grew up on the East side where she attended St. Patrick Church and graduated from Bartlett High School. After receiving her undergraduate degree from UCLA, she earned a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University, and returned to the state she loved where she most recently was working for the state’s division of public health.
In accepting the position with CSS, Aquino said she is “following my heart. I feel compelled towards and drawn to this organization.”
Returning to Alaska after graduate school in 1999, Aquino became reconnected with someone she’d dated in high school, her future husband Chris Aquino. Chris had gone on to college, served with the Peace Corps, and attended graduate school in Lyon, France before finding his way back to Anchorage.
The two married in 2006.
From 2008 to 2011, the couple took their mutual sense of adventure to South Africa, where Chris had earlier served with the Peace Corps. Aquino worked for the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, where she oversaw the building of a youth center with a clinic onsite. Her husband worked for the U.S. Consulate and for a private foundation. Their oldest child, Holden, was born in South Africa in 2010.
The Aquinos also have a two-year-old daughter, Stella, and they are now parishioners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in South Anchorage.
Each woman had high praise for the other.
“The board of CSS has made an outstanding choice with Lisa,” Bomalaski said. “It’s not a job for her; it’s her passion.”
And clearly, the baton has been passed efficiently, as Aquino echoes Bomalaski’s concern with issues of unemployment.
“There’s growing research on how to give clients long-term employment,” Aquino said. “I hope to talk about new and novel approaches to employment opportunities.”
Bomalaski and her husband are also the parents of two children, now grown. As she looks back on her tenure at CSS, she sees education of the community as a key component of the position. People need to understand that homelessness often affects families and children, she said, and they need to advocate for social change on economic issues.
But she’s ready for something new, and she’s taking her time “in the process of exploring options.”
Her husband, now retired from the Air Force, has a private medical practice in Anchorage, and the two plan to continue living in Alaska.