The immense humanitarian need in war-torn Ukraine, the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan and the clean-up in Tonga after an earthquake and tsunami are a few examples of the pressing matters that face Kirsty Robertson each day in her role as chief executive officer of Caritas Australia.
Add to that the fallout of a worldwide pandemic and you could be forgiven for thinking that she may have drawn the short straw in the job stakes.
However, the unflappable Sydney-based mother of one said working for the Catholic Church’s international aid and development organisation for a quarter of a century was the best way she could serve her faith and described being CEO as her “dream job”.
“It has been a particularly busy period recently but I think the difference between Caritas and many other NGOs is that we are connected with the Church and we are always in these countries – before the disaster, during and after,” she said.
“You can be easily overwhelmed by all these disasters, particularly young people, and I don’t want them left feeling despair by seeing bombs in Ukraine.
“I want them to know that there in the middle of all that is a Caritas person handing out water, providing shelter, because there is something beautiful and hope-filled in that – and that is what we hope is the legacy of Caritas.”
Visiting Adelaide last month to attend the schools launch of Project Compassion – the Lenten appeal that is Caritas Australia’s main fundraiser – Kirsty paid tribute to local Catholics and their generosity over the years.
“Project Compassion started in South Australia and it’s made very clear when you become CEO of Caritas Australia that the appeal’s birthplace was in Adelaide,” she laughed.
“I like coming here because in a way it’s connecting with that part of the Project Compassion story that had quite a significant chapter here.”
For most Catholic school old scholars, Project Compassion will conjure up memories of placing spare coins in the small fundraising boxes that were distributed each year. Today, the box sports a QR code and there are plans to make it ‘virtual’, however Kirsty said it would always be a symbolic reminder how Catholics open up their hearts and wallets to help improve the lives of vulnerable people around the world.
“When people talk about this box I say it looks like a box, but it’s much more than that, it’s about all the stories that inspired this box,” she explained.
“They are the stories of people in other lands that we will probably never meet, but they are also stories of all of us whose hearts have been transformed by this box and by giving.
“The box is a bit of an invitation, it’s asking the question of ‘Will I do more? Will I respond to that call to look after the poor? Will I respond to that call that is asking me to remember people who live in poverty?’ And hopefully the answer of all of us is ‘Yes, we can!’”
In contrast to many charities that struggled during the pandemic, Kirsty said Caritas Australia continued to be “relevant” and last year its income rose to its highest levels ever.
“For me, Caritas Australia is now and always has been this good news story of the Church,” she said.
“And so the generosity of the Australian Catholic community really endures and continues to surprise me.
“It’s interesting that at a time when many charities are feeling the pinch, for us at Caritas what we are seeing is people wanting to connect with the ‘other’, really wanting to connect with their faith and really taking them back to what is important in life… back to their family, back to that idea of wanting something hope-filled to look forward to at this time –and for many people that is Caritas.”
Now in her forties, Kirsty said she knew when she was in Grade 6 attending a Catholic primary school in Sydney that she was destined to “live a life of prayerful service”.
“From the moment I was in school I instinctively remember just being moved by the work that Caritas Australia did,” she recalled.
“Probably much to the disappointment of my family – because I had been to a big, private expensive Catholic school in Sydney – I went to law school, dropped out, and then said what I actually want to do with my life is this work with Caritas Australia. And the rest is history.”
Over the years she has worked on Caritas Australia projects overseas in Ethiopia and Nepal and served in various roles within the organisation. Prior to her current position she was the CEO of Mary MacKillop Today, which supports the outreach work of the Sisters of St Joseph in Australia and internationally.
Kirsty said Australia’s first saint had added another layer to her strong Catholic faith.
“I now sign off all my correspondence ‘with gratitude’ or ‘in gratitude’ because of a quote from Mary MacKillop in which she said ‘gratitude is the memory of the heart’. During my time with the Josephites I started a Gratitude Journal which I write in every day and it’s completely transformed my life – the idea that there is a lot out there to be grateful for.”Jump to next article