Where Realism Meets Empathy

Ella Guimond '13 (BA) working alongside colleagues and community members in El Salvador, as part of her work with Catholic Relief Services.


Ella Guimond  ‘13 (BA) had just finished leading a virtual cycling class when we connected by phone in late March. The Philadelephia-based community engagement manager for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) had had much of her work frozen, as had millions of others in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guimond — who is also a fitness instructor, general manager of a local fitness studio and mindfulness leader — considered the pandemic’s impacts on the lives of Americans, and then placed them in the global context that informs much of her work.

“For us, this is the first time in my lifetime that something like this has happened,” she said. “But there are so many communities that we don’t even know about that have been facing similar challenges for a very long time.”

In their work with CRS locally and internationally, Guimond and other USD alumni have had extensive first-hand experience with those other communities: impoverished and desperate people fleeing civil war in Syria, survivors of famine and other humanitarian disasters in Africa, and Central Americans claiming asylum who are being held in makeshift camps and shelters right across the U.S. border in Mexico.

“Not to take away from the suffering and fear and other emotions that we as a U.S. society are feeling, but this very real fear we are feeling is felt all around the world,” Guimond says. “Not just now, but at other times, people are facing malaria, HIV/AIDS or Ebola. Or the fear of being deported and having to leave your home.” She wonders if this fraught time in our lives might serve as a platform to highlight the suffering and stress that millions around the world endure every day of their lives.

If that’s the wide-angle lens through which Guimond sees the planet, Jessica Howell ’07 (MA) has used the telephoto.

Howell, who earned her master’s in peace and justice studies, spent several years working on CRS programs in the Middle East, including Gaza, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Situations that have necessitated a humanitarian response are painful and distressing and demoralizing,” she says. “And yet there can be such hope in the midst of it all. CRS predominantly hires staff from the communities in which we work, and being part of that team is an incredible privilege.”

Howell returned to the U.S. for family reasons and now manages the Midwest region for CRS. Working out of Minneapolis, she is responsible for outreach in 12 states. “We’re trying to build a movement to bring transformative change to poor and vulnerable communities around the world, largely through legislative advocacy to shape U.S. policy on critical global issues.”

Maria Arroyo ‘07 (MA) is Howell’s counterpart in the agency’s western region, based in San Diego. After completing an undergraduate degree in business and briefly working in the corporate world, Arroyo made a shift. She began working in her Orange County parish, completed a master’s in theology, and then earned another master’s in pastoral care and counseling. While working on that degree at USD, electives she took through the Kroc School helped her find her new path.

“I volunteered in India, I did a study abroad in Argentina, I took a trip to Peru. I volunteered across the border in Mexico,” Arroyo says. “It gave me an international approach and complemented my pastoral work as well.” She’s been with CRS ever since, save for a two-year hiatus during which she lived part of the time in Mexico.

“When I saw the job posting, I knew it was perfect for me,” she says. “It marries the faith piece, the church piece, and the international global dimension.”

For all three women, CRS is a base from which they view the world with realism and empathy. No crisis is crippling. No challenge is insurmountable. “Families who were already living in extreme poverty are still living in extreme poverty,” says Guimond. “They live in such fear now, they can’t go out and get rice and beans. “I think the biggest thing is, the work doesn’t stop.” — Karen Gross

Photo caption: From left to right, Craig Stephens, Patricia Simone, Niña Francesca, Erica , Ella Guimond, ’13 (BA) and Kat Saxton in El Salvador.

Photo credit: Trena Yonkers-Talz, co-director of the Casa de la Solidaridad study abroad program.

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