By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor
Brenda Rascher admits that the past few months have been a bit of a whirlwind.
Within a week of coming across the job posting earlier this summer to become the Diocese’s new executive director of Catholic Social Services, she had not only applied and been granted an interview, she was offered the job, gave her former employer notice and found a new home.
But then again, Rascher is no stranger to wild rides.
In 2003, she was attacked by a pack of dogs during a charity bicycle ride from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. And since 1999, she’s been taking cross-country trips on her Harley motorcycle.
“I’m very persistent,” said Rascher, sitting in her new office in the Chancery, Lawrenceville, her surroundings still sparse minus some copies of a book she penned as a nonprofit lawyer and a list of Catholic Social Services numbers by her telephone to answer any emergency call that may come in.
Rascher, who was appointed to her role by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., succeeds Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress, who relocated to take a similar assignment for the Daughters of Charity in St. Louis, Mo.
“Sister Joanne created this position and did an incredible job. I hope to take the good work she did and take it to the next step,” Rascher said.
Rascher comes to the Diocese after nearly 23 years with the nonprofit South Jersey Legal Services Inc., where over the years as an attorney, she represented low-income clients in areas of housing (her specialty), domestic violence, custody and visitation disputes, debt collection and budgeting plans. One of her main responsibilities was helping low-income clients prevent the loss of their affordable housing or obtain affordable housing.
That issue, Rascher said, is one that has been identified in the Diocese “as something that needs to be looked at” as well.
Rascher holds a bachelor of arts degree from Mount St. Joseph University, Cincinnati, Ohio; a master of social work from Saint Louis University School of Social Service, St. Louis, Mo., and a juris doctor degree from Temple University Law School, Philadelphia. She also has experience helping low-income and homebound seniors with mental health, medical, protective and legal services in north Philadelphia.
She’s been a cantor for 22 years in St. Anthony Church, Port Norris, Cumberland County, which is part of Holy Cross Parish, and served on the parish finance committee for eight years.
Rascher’s first career path when she was young wasn’t with people, but animals. She once told her high school guidance counselor she was going to become a veterinarian.
But growing up in Middlesex County as one of seven sisters – one of whom has a developmental disability – Rascher watched as her parents took an active role in working for equal rights at a time when special-education programs didn’t exist.
“I caught the bug for fighting for people’s rights from my parents,” she said.
The Big Picture
Rascher, who currently lives in Port Norris but has her sights set on a house in Ewing, hopes to continue her outreach work by quickly acquainting herself with the social service organizations that fall under the Diocese of Trenton. Her plan, she says, is to visit every office and satellite site.
“I not only want to know the directors but have a relationship with others as well,” she said. “I want those local folks to know who I am. I want to problem-solve. The only way to do that is to know what the social service agencies are dealing with day to day.”
Solving problems seems to be second nature to Rascher. Not only has she had to think on her feet when her motorcycle has broken down – such as a 2014 return trip home from driving to the Arctic Circle in Coldfoot, Alaska, (she used the delay to visit family) – Rascher also used a vicious dog attack to put life in perspective.
In the summer of 2003, during the “Brake the Cycle of Poverty” bicycle tour from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., – a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops-sponsored program in which riders inform the public about poverty in America – Rascher was attacked by a pack of dogs in Missouri. She was sent to the emergency room with nine puncture wounds, which forced her to stay off her bicycle for three days.
Some asked if she was going to quit, a question that made her think about the low-income clients she has served.
“When the Rottweilers and pit bulls of the world attack poor people, they can’t go home. They are home,” she said.
Rascher got back on the bike and finished the 3,880-mile journey.