Catholic Charities CEO Vincent Colonno and instructor Clara Simon pose with Travis Oliphant, who just completed the Getting Ahead program. (Emily Benson photo)
Catholic Charities CEO Vincent Colonno and instructor Clara Simon pose with Travis Oliphant, who just completed the Getting Ahead program. (Emily Benson photo)

Rosanna Castro choked back tears as she delivered a speech to her fellow graduates May 16 at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Albany.

“It was a pleasure working with you all,” she said. “My friends, my peers, pretty much my family.”

Ms. Castro is one of 13 graduates from the second class of “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World,” a program offered through Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany.

Getting Ahead is a 16-week course that helps low-income individuals examine how poverty impacts their lives.

Participants in the course, called “investigators,” meet weekly to examine how issues with housing, income, the job market and transportation can all impact their situation and their community’s situation in regard to poverty. Investigators also explore what resources are available to them to help improve their situation.

People, not poverty

“When we look at poverty, we think of money, but that’s one aspect of the resources,” said Grit Carotenuto, director for quality and performance improvement at Catholic Charities.

The Getting Ahead program, she said, “takes away the stereotypes” that exist about persons living in poverty and “focuses on the people.”

Ms. Castro said that Getting Ahead was a help to her as she strives for a better future with her family. A mother of three, she left her life in the Bronx in 2015 and moved her children to Albany “for a new life.” She left behind her former fiancé’s issues with domestic violence and the tragedy of a lost friend, but her battle wasn’t over.

Ms. Castro suffered a knee ­injury and was unable to work, making it difficult to maintain stable housing for her children. They were placed in foster care.

Today, though, Ms. Castro is confident that she will “figure it out.” She said that she is blessed with three “amazing angels” as children, and hopes her Getting Ahead certificate will help her case for regaining custody of them.

“By the grace of God, I’m still standing,” she added.

Cheers from CEO

Vince Colonno, CEO of Catholic Charities, said at the graduation ceremony that he was “amazed with the success of this program.

“To come and see the results of what you’re speaks volumes of who you are,” he told participants. “I see nothing but good ahead of you.”

The Getting Ahead program is based on a workbook by Philip DeVol, “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World: Building Your Resources for a Better Life.” Mr. DeVol, who ran an addiction treatment center for many years, works with a company called aha! Process to give organizations like Catholic Charities the tools they need to provide the Getting Ahead program.

Catholic Charities agencies across the U.S., and local organizations like Schenectady City Mission, have been offering Getting Ahead. Mrs. Carotenuto brought the program to diocesan Catholic Charities in 2016, having seen the City Mission’s success with both Getting Ahead and Bridges Out of Poverty, a similar program also offered by aha! Process.

Mrs. Carotenuto, a social worker by training, received a grant from Fidelis Care to sponsor this year’s Getting Ahead program. She said the program excites her because “that’s why I went into [social work]. I wanted to help change lives.”

Making connections

The program caps at around 20 people to ensure individual attention from the instructor. Mrs. Carotenuto said that Catholic Charities’ Single Room Occupancy (SRO) program, which provides safe, affordable housing for persons living in poverty, helped alert potential participants about Getting Ahead.

That’s how Ms. Castro and fellow graduate Sherman Kennedy connected with Getting Ahead. Mr. Kennedy said the program gave him “a lot of information [and] a lot of resources.”

Clara Simon was the instructor for this year’s Getting Ahead program. She addressed the class during the graduation ceremony, saying “it was an honor and a pleasure of work with all of you.

“The people here are awesome,” she said “They persevere, they struggle and then they persevere some more.”

“My survival has been a long one,” said Ms. Castro during her speech, confirming her teacher’s words. “I wouldn’t be here with my certificate without you guys.”

After the speeches, each graduate was called up to accept a certificate. Everyone clapped and cheered for one another as names were called out.
Stanley Smith accepted his certificate from Mr. Colonno and paused for a photo. As he posed, Mr. Smith shook his head and smiled. “I made it,” he said.

(For more information, contact Mrs. Carotenuto at 518-453-6665 or