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The gamesmanship of doing good: at winning grants and fostering volunteers, this sister is a pro.

Most of the time I've known Sr. Katherine Corr, running on 25 years now, she has believed in the separation of church and state. But not totally separate. Since the mid-1990s her considerable energies have been given over to the Baltimore-based Notre Dame Mission Volunteers and AmeriCorps, the federally funded program within the Corporation for National and Community Service. If it was not quite a match made in heaven, it was for Corr a suitable relationship that looked as if it might last.

It has. The first AmeriCorps grant in 1995 was $658,000, the most recent $3,971,625.

What began with six volunteers has grown to more than 400 in 23 urban and rural sites. In 17 years of screening applicants, assigning more than 3,500 volunteers to serve more than 375,000 children and adults in dozens of sites from migrant worker camps in Apopka, Fla., to English-language classes in Boston, in documenting the results for congressional oversight committees and program evaluators, the full amount of the grants totals more than $30 million. As required by law, partnering with AmeriCorps has meant that Corr has raised an equal matching amount from foundations and local site partners.

Winning federal grants is not an art this senior member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur learned in her formation years in the convent. She educated herself by talking to people in the nonprofit world, going to meetings, learning how to speak and write bureaucratese, knowing which doors to get her foot into, how to wheedle egos and then microscopically eyeing every grant dollar to assure, first, that it was worthily spent and, second, to account for it when federal evaluators came around to examine the books and measure results. The world is packed with people who are earnest about doing good but weary all too quickly when trying to master the gamesmanship of winning grants to make it happen.

The feds have long known that Corr is a pro. "I worked with the corporation back in the Clinton administration," said John Gomperts, director of AmeriCorps and a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. "In the early days of the program, the grant application process was less competitive. Now that the program is established and respected, it is sought after by many nonprofit organizations. The application process has become hugely competitive. Less than half the applications are funded. That Notre Dame Mission Volunteers has consistently won these competitions is a fine testament to the quality of the program and its record."

Over the years, I've been to about a dozen of the annual two-day retreats that Corr organizes for the volunteers. That's another of her talents--pumping up those who might be running low on energy while calming down those angry at Congress for overfunding the works of war but underfunding the works of peace.

Corr joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur--an international teaching order founded in France in 1804--as an 18-year-old in 1959. The fourth of 10 children whose mother was a homemaker and father a milkman in Ardmore, Pa., her earliest assignment, after earning two degrees in education, was teaching in Atlanta from 1967 to 1970. In her off-hours, she was learning by volunteering for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its voter registration campaign. That brought her into contact with its first president, Martin Luther King Jr. She would form a lifelong friendship with John Lewis, now in his 12th term as a Democratic representative from Georgia. "Because of them," Corr said, "I came to see the intimate connections between racism, poverty and war. The call to work in community organizing became an essential part of my spiritual life, as the writings of St. Julie [Billiart, founder of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namurl and Thomas Merton guided me in developing a life of prayer that has continually inspired me to reach out to address these issues."

Innately modest, Corr does indulge in one boast: "I am smart at finding good people who make things happen." It works the other way, too: AmeriCorps, which in a recent report signaled the Notre Dame program as one of the four best-managed in the current grant cycle, is smart to keep strong its ties to Corr. Not many like her come along.

[Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington and teaches courses on nonviolence at four universities and two high schools.]
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Title Annotation:RELIGIOUS LIFE; Katherine Corr
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 17, 2012
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