CATHOLIC CHARITIES HEAD VINO PAJANOR WALKS THE WALK
Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor ‘02 (LLM) knows what it’s like to be a newcomer. That’s exactly what he was when he arrived in San Diego in the fall of 2000, having left his parents, extended family and a successful law practice behind in India.
“What brought me here? The changing environment in India along with my need to acquire more knowledge and exposure,” he says. The University of San Diego offered not just a top-tier legal education in a Catholic setting, but also a merit scholarship and a place to call home in a foreign land.
“Right from the get-go, there was a personal touch at USD. They knew who I was and what kinds of needs I had. They helped me integrate into the community and gave me a lot of opportunities.”
Pajanor’s Catholic upbringing in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, prepared him to do well and do good at the same time. Photographs proudly displayed in his office show his father, India’s first practicing Catholic cabinet minister, meeting Pope John Paul II following a personal invitation to Rome.
“He was always a person who followed his faith. He was my inspiration and my guide in whatever I did,” he says. “He had an affinity for Mother Teresa, and as a parliamentarian, he fought against a bill to expel the missionaries. When my dad left politics, she sent him a handwritten note.”
A dedication to the moral high ground brought Pajanor to his new life in the U.S. and has guided him over the years. As a student volunteer at St. Vincent de Paul’s shelter, he helped reinstate a pro bono legal clinic that had closed.
“He came to me saying, ‘We can do this. This is where people need help,’” recalls Allen Snyder, one of his law professors. “Whatever he was doing, he did with a bounce in his step and joy in his heart.”
Pajanor’s positivity found a new opportunity several years later, when a client at his law firm, Higgs, Fletcher & Mack, asked him to look into predatory lending practices in the local real estate market. That led to creation of the Housing Opportunities Collaborative, a nonprofit helping homeowners hit by the mortgage crisis. As its first executive director, Pajanor developed key public and private partnerships over the course of nearly a decade.
Last October, Pajanor brought his dedication and experience to the same position at Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego (CCDSD). Within days, he faced his first emergency, when federal authorities began dropping desperate asylum seekers at the bus station in downtown San Diego.
“I was brand new in my role, still learning how things worked,” he recalls. He learned fast. “Catholic Charities has always been involved in providing immigration and refugee services, so it was natural for us to get involved when the crisis hit at the border.”
That early test — combined with the region’s increasingly grave homeless situation — gave Pajanor a crash course not only in CCDSD’s role in the community and its regional relationships, but also in the delicate politics of his new position.
“There’s always blowback when you deal with migrants coming in. People argue, ‘There’s already a need here, why help these other folks?’”
His answer is clear: “The homeless and those who come in as strangers, they’re all critical for us, because this is a border town. If a migrant comes in and we don’t address their needs, they’re going to become homeless. They’re going to end up on the street.”
As CCDSD prepares to celebrate its centennial this year, Pajanor brings a fresh set of eyes to the deeply rooted institution. While the agency will evolve on Pajanor’s watch, its vision will not waver. “For those who have no voice, Catholic Charities has always been at the forefront,” he says. “That has to remain at the core of our mission.” — Karen Gross