A few weeks after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Katrina Eichler landed her first job out of college at Catholic Social Services in Dover for the Diocese of Wilmington.
Eichler, who retired in February as Southern Region Director for Catholic Charities, recalled that her mother found her the job that would become her career.
In the summer of 1969, Eichler was fresh out of Michigan State in East Lansing with a degree in retailing. She had grown up in Michigan but her parents moved to the Dover area when her father got a job with General Foods. She stayed in Michigan with family to finish high school at attend Michigan State.
When her mother saw a job ad for a caseworker for foster care and adoption at Catholic Social Services in Dover, she urged her newly graduated daughter to apply.
Eichler, an obedient daughter, applied and was hired by the diocese. She promised her mother she would keep the job “for a year.”
She started counseling parents about foster care and adoption and did child counseling and pregnancy counseling.
Social Services’ office was on Bradford Street in Dover and Eichler worked with the first downstate employee of the agency, Margaret K. Weller.
As demand for social services in the area grew, the Dover office expanded its services to crisis alleviation, helping people who required help paying for basic needs.
Eichler recalled she became a supervisor of a crisis worker when the office started to expand its staff.
During the energy crisis in the 1970s, the state government had become familiar with the diocese’s crises alleviation work in the county and it asked Catholic Social Services, as Catholic Charities was then called, to run Kent County’s federal energy assistance program.
The office administered the federal energy funds and helped so many families so well in Kent County that the state of Delaware asked Eichler to take over the program in New Castle County.
“That was my biggest challenge,” Eichler said.
To get the New Castle County program functioning smoothly, “we took some of our seasoned staff and rented space on Lincoln Street,” she said.
The Catholic Charities staffers would leave Dover about 6:30 a.m. to work in Wilmington, often returning some 12 hours later.
“The energy program moved me into administration, which I like very much,” Eichler said.
In the early days of Dover’s energy assistance work, she said the agency granted about $5,000 to $10,000 a year.
“During the last two years,” Eichler said, “we served close to 20,000 in the state with $10- to $12 million in grants.
Whether it’s providing emergency energy assistance or directing clients to counseling or helping with a variety of crises needs, Eichler has been most gratified to hear Catholic Charities’ clients say, “I felt respected; I felt like I was heard,” after seeking help from the agency.
The key to Catholic Charities’ success and reputation has been the “hiring of individuals who are nurturing, have the right training and keep our reputation credible and client-based,” Eichler said.
“When all is said and done, that’s how you get all this work done. I’m extremely proud of that.”
Getting the work done, Eichler said, helped Catholic Charities through the recent recession when other agencies were struggling.
“Catholic Charities was able to maintain is donor base, foundation and business support,” while keeping the agency lean and tight.
During her career with Catholic Charities, Eichler worked with all four of the agency’s directors — Msgr. Thomas Reese, Dick Pryor, Allen Daul, Tom Thorpe and Richelle Vible, the current executive director.
Eichler also served as interim executive director of Catholic Charities before Vible was hired.
In addition to her Catholic Charities career, Eichler served on the diocesan employees’ committee during the 2009-11 bankruptcy.
“I was proud to represent the staff and work with the bishop and all parties for a more secure pension.”
Four decades of social services work have give the soft-spoken Eichler a clear vision of societal changes.
With drug problems and financial needs, the demand for help is greater, she said. “This is a society that has so much risk to it.”
Eichler cited Catholic Charities’ endorsement from the Council on Accreditation approval as a sign of the agency’s attentiveness to higher professional standards.
She said that despite the fact that some rules can lead to spending as much money reporting as you do serving, she’s leaving Catholic Charities with “the best accreditation rating in my career.”
Eichler, 64, and her retired banker husband, Thomas, members of Dover’s Holy Cross parish, plan to be spending time in Lewes, where Eichler’s mother, Jane VanderVeen, lives.
The Eichlers have two grown children, Gavin, 29, a businessman in Lewes, and a daughter, Logan, who works in the finance department of a Wilmington law firm.
Eichler’s mother, who told her she had to take the $3.50 an hour Catholic Charities job in 1969, has been praying she would decide to retire soon. And now, her obedient daughter, the longest-serving employee in Catholic Charities, has.