By Nicole Gregory     10/16/2020

Ellen Roy started her new job as executive director of Catholic Charities of Orange County in June, in the midst of a devastating pandemic. But with her years of experience in corporate work and nonprofits, Roy was more than ready to take the challenge. 

“This is most exciting thing I’ve done in my career,” she says. “The challenges of helping the poorest of the poor in a pandemic have been enormous.” 

Key to her drive are Roy’s strong Catholic values which were shaped by her close-knit family, grandparents and surrounding community in Toledo, Ohio. “It was a Hungarian-Italian neighborhood,” says Roy, describing her background, “and most of the people were Catholic.” She attended a Catholic elementary school, where the nuns also served as a positive influence.  

The generous spirit of her Romanian-born grandmother had a particular impact. “Somehow my grandmother always knew when our family was low on money, and she would walk down from her house nearby and help us out. She always did that. We were poor, but I didn’t realize it until I was in college.” 

Roy attended the University of Toledo where she received a degree in business administration and from 1987 to 2002 she worked at McDonnell Douglas, the aerospace company that later became Boeing. She rose through the ranks to become the CEO of a Boeing subsidiary and eventually led a management buyout of the subsidiary. 

“In the corporate world, it can be hard to keep your ethics,” says Roy, “but that’s one thing I never wavered on. My leadership was formed on ethics and people there understood I was authentic. I built really strong teams because the rock for me is ethics and integrity. You always have to be honest and work hard.”  

Eventually Roy decided to leave corporate work. “I wanted take all my business skills and apply them to nonprofit world, especially the Catholic nonprofit world,” she says. She worked with Kathleen Eaton Bravo, founder of OBRIA, the prolife women’s healthcare organization, and Mary’s Path, a Santa Ana shelter for teenage mothers and their babies. But Roy was eager to be directly involved with more Catholic-based work. And that brought her to Catholic Charities of Orange County in Santa Ana.  

“The need [created by] Covid 19 is incredible,” she says. “The Cantlay Food Distribution Center of the Catholic Charities of Orange County was feeding 400 families a week before Covid and now it feeds 3,000 a week.” The food comes from Community Action Partnership, Second Harvest Food Bank and food drives from local parishes. Volunteers keep the food distribution running smoothly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays when cars line up for more than a mile to receive groceries. 

Just as critical as food is the need for housing. “One result of Covid-19 is that you have a lot of lower-end jobs going away, which affects poor and minorities disproportionately,” says Roy. “But the jobs are not coming back. How can people have housing when they can’t pay rent? It’s a tough situation for the poorest of the poor.” Catholic Charities of Orange County was awarded a grant from city of Santa Ana to help people with rent. “We’re only dealing with the city of Santa Ana, but the need is everywhere,” she says.  

Catholic Charities USA was founded in 1910 to advocate for the needs of the poor and to join together Catholics involved in charitable ministries across the country. Today it provides valuable support for local groups, which also support each other. “There is a lot of networking about best practices. It’s really nice to see a lot of collaboration among the charities,” says Roy.  

At the state level, Catholic Charities of California, which serves more than one million people each year, supports local groups on issues such as immigration. “We work with Dreamers [young immigrants who are eligible for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors] and help immigrants get citizenship,” says Roy. 

She has three goals: “Number one is to work closely with the Diocese of Orange so that we’re on the same page. Second is to improve and expand programs we offer. And three is to upgrade our technology to be reachable for everyone.” 

A big plus for Roy are her colleagues. “These are the most wonderful and caring people I have met,” she says of her staff of about 30. “I could not ask for a better team.” Everyone comes from the same Catholic grounding—a huge help. 

“In the corporate world, a lot of time is spent on getting everyone to understand the vision,” says Roy. “What is so amazing here is that you don’t have that struggle—everyone is on the same page. We are the social service arm of the diocese and we are here to help the least of our brothers. I feel so good about what we’re doing.”