Ken Palermo has had a sergeant’s stripe tacked to the bulletin board at every job he’s ever worked.
It’s from the uniform of his dad, a retired west suburban Chicago police officer.
“It’s a constant reminder to me that no matter how difficult a situation might get, it’s never as hard as his semi-bad days were,” said Mr. Palermo, Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri’s (CCCNMO) new director of Refugee Services.
He sees Refugee Services as a bridge between people who need help, and a community that is eager to welcome them.
“The best thing I’ve found about the Columbia and Boone County area is that it’s so diverse and welcoming and open to serving people who are in dire need,” he said.
Formerly an office of the Jefferson City diocese, Catholic Charities Refugee Services is the only agency in Central Missouri that resettles refugees, having welcomed more than 4,000 over the past 45 years.
With a 28-member staff working in Columbia, Refugee Services provides essential services to arriving refugees, with the most intensive level of services taking place in the first six months after arrival.
It is part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Catholic resettlement network.
All of these refugees, who leave their homes out of legitimate fear of death or serious injury, are thoroughly vetted for security through multiple federal departments, including the U.S. State Department.
Most arrive here with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Resettlement services through Catholic Charities are funded by both government grants and private donations and include: finding and helping to pay for suitable housing, used furniture, clothing and food; providing English-language instruction, driver’s training and employment strategies and placement; and offering interpreter services, health care facilitation, community information and referral, and extensive case management/counseling.
If he were working in private industry, Mr. Palermo would describe Refugee Services’ commodity as “human beings who bring something of great value to our communities.”
“How they grow and flourish has a lot to do with how we do our job and how well we document that in order to be accountable to our supporters and show them how darned-good of a job we’re doing,” he stated.
Mr. Palermo brings abundant experience, enthusiasm and focus to this new role.
“My leadership style is very much servant-based,” he said. “I can’t lead my staff to do the work unless I do the work also. I don’t need to be an expert — in fact, I’m never the expert in the room. But I do need to have an understanding of how all the pieces fit together here so we can make the best decision as a team.”
He succeeds Samantha Moog, who led Catholic Charities Refugee Services through a time of rapid expansion in order to resettle hundreds of displaced people following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
“I got here just as this organization was coming out of crisis mode with the flood of people from Afghanistan, along with the slow burn with Ukraine,” said Mr. Palermo.
He lauded the agency’s response to the crisis: a marked increase in staff and resources, and a sustained commitment “to provide for the humanitarian response when people showed up and put out the many, many fires.”
“They’ve done a great job with that,” said Mr. Palermo. “They delivered 150 percent of what was needed to welcome people to our community, to get them resettled and employed and acclimated to our culture and all that comes with it.”
A vast and generous network of community sponsors throughout Central Missouri helped Catholic Charities Refugee Services settle almost 400 refugees in the area within the past year and provide the necessary follow-up services.
“We can always learn from our experience,” he said. “Everyone here has demonstrated how to learn from what we’re doing and from what we’ve done, so we’ll be ready for whatever the next big challenge will bring,” he said.
Mr. Palermo previously worked for 27 years in public health and social services serving Missourians statewide. He spent the past 14 at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS).
That put him on the front lines of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m very proud of our efforts to create awareness about something that could really hurt people,” he said.
As he was also the state registrar for Missouri Vital Records, any person in the state who died during that time has his name on their death certificate.
“I take that very personally, because so many of them were preventable,” he stated.
COVID made for hard but meaningful work.
“My takeaway from all of that is that people who have the passion and dedication no matter the obstacles, keep going forward, trying to lean forward and into things to do the best they can with what they have,” he said.
“It also reinforced for me how humor in stressful times can be a game-changer,” he added.
Mr. Palermo said no two of his first 90 days at Catholic Charities have been alike.
“Every day is different not only because of my learning curve but also the nuances of what a new family might need while arriving, or shortly after arriving, or at any time during the cycle of their resettlement program — it’s always changing!” he said.
On his third day at the helm, he went to Columbia Regional Airport to join in welcoming a family that Catholic Charities was helping to resettle in the area.
“Here they are, half a world away from where they came from,” he recalled. “And we stood there, smiling when they walked up. And despite being exhausted and having spent almost 24 hours in the air, they smiled right back at us.”
Right away, a connection was forged.
“I think we’d all be in a better place if people would just smile at each other more often,” he said.
Mr. Palermo grew up on Chicago’s busy West Side, “with the hustle, the bustle, constant movement, everyone at 90 miles an hour, where trees were not as plentiful as they are here.”
His mom grew up in Bourbon, Missouri, and his grandparents eventually moved to a small farm in Franklin County.
“I spent most of my summers in Missouri,” he recalled. “I ran cattle, I ran hay. I knew those 80 acres like the back of my hand, I could identify every kind tree.”
His mother often told him that whatever he did in life, he should work to make himself indispensable.
His dad showed him what commitment to the community looks like.
“I grew up knowing that at any moment, I would hear a radio go off, and a gun belt go on and the clink of the keys,” Mr. Palermo recalled. “And there he was, running toward what everyone else was running away from.”
Mr. Palermo majored in Political Science at what is now Truman State University in Kirksville.
He started his career in public health as a disease intervention specialist.
“That’s how I cut my teeth in public health,” he said. “I would be the one to go out as a complete stranger and to talk to people about exposure to STDs or HIV.
“The compassion one needs to muster in talking about behaviors or potential outcomes from choices that are made — that’s not an easy task,” he said.
“To be a listening ear no matter the circumstances and really listen without coming off ‘judgy,’ and offer information on how to improve things — you learn all of that quickly,” he added.
During an outbreak of the Zika virus, which is borne by mosquitos, he set out with university students from southwest Missouri to trap mosquitos for testing.
He did the same in gathering ticks and on one occasion drew blood in the front seat of his car to help verify that a concerned individual hadn’t been exposed to a virus.
“I’ve always said, I can’t supervise the work unless I know how to do the work,” he said.
Mr. Palermo was exhausted after the pandemic and exercised his option to retire from the state.
Ten months later, he saw an ad online seeking a director for Catholic Charities Refugee Services.
“It sounded interesting but daunting,” he recalled. “I didn’t apply right away. But then I saw it again and thought, ‘This is a sign.’”
After applying, he had a great conversation with CCCNMO Executive Director Dan Lester, followed by two formal interviews with the agency’s core leadership.
Mr. Palermo started work there Aug. 8.
“I’ve always been drawn to roles that involve serving as a leader and helping people,” he said. “But coming to work for Catholic Charities — this comes from a deeper set of values. Being Catholic, this really rang a lot of bells for me. I’m very content despite it being an uphill climb.”
The work is complex and requires acute attention to details.
“We’re bound by the administrative guardrails from the (USCCB) and the federal government,” he said. “The roles are laborious because of how we have to document things. When you’re working with the federal government, if it’s not on paper, it didn’t happen.”
He’s pleased to be reconnecting with people he’s worked with in the past, including local health departments and other community partners such as City of Refuge in Columbia, and other people involved in providing services to people in need.
He told his coworkers in Refugee Services: “I’ll do all I can to help you do your job successfully and then maybe do mine someday.”
He said the whole Catholic Charities staff has been “incredibly supportive,” including people who have been involved in refugee resettlement for years.
He tries to be present each time a new family arrives at the airport.
“The value I get from that seems to increase with each arrival,” he said. “That’s my reset point and a source of rejuvenation.”
Mr. Palermo noted that the people doing the work of Refugee Services carry a rich diversity of faith.
“We’re Catholic Charities and we’re a ministry of the Church, and we’re driven by the principles of Catholic social teaching,” he said. “But the collective passion here is rooted in any number of different manifestations of faith — even people who are questioning but are still driven by a collective compassion and desire to be empathetic and do what you can for fellow human beings.
“The universality of the higher cause of serving others is there, no matter what your faith is rooted in,” he stated.
He’s known on social media for sharing items that carry the #ChooseKind hashtag.
“Our relationships with each other — whether that’s with a stranger or someone we know well, whether it’s someone in-need or not, or someone we encounter through our faith or our ministry — they are ultimately what makes us better people,” he said.
“People who draw us out of our personal spheres make us better,” he said. “Bottom line: be kind!”
He and his wife have four daughters, all of whom inspire him to deeper concern and compassion.
Their oldest is planning her wedding; another graduated from the University of Missouri in May while recovering from a catastrophic injury in March; another is in junior high and exhibits tremendous creativity.
Their 23-year-old has Down syndrome and special needs.
“For a human being to always be kind and loving and compassionate, regardless of the circumstances — that’s who she is,” said Mr. Palermo.
He said people can help by simply being friendly and welcoming to newcomers.
“You can decide every moment, whether you’re sitting in traffic or waiting in line somewhere, to take the opportunity to be kind,” he said.
People can also help by donating furniture, household items, clothing and money to the cause.
“There’s a certain unfortunate sense to the fact that money makes the world go round,” said Mr. Palermo, “but where we are, where we serve people, it gives us the most flexibility in the help we’re able to give.”
He asked for prayers for “continued love and patience as we work through challenges and continue to realize that no matter what lies before us, it is always surmountable in some context.”
This December, Catholic Charities Refugee Services is again participating in CoMoGives, an end-of-the-year community fundraising campaign to support area non-profit organizations. You can support their work by visiting CoMoGives.org and searching for “Catholic Charities Refugee Services.”
For additional assistance, the public is encouraged to sign up for online giving at cccnmo.diojeffcity.org/give or mailing a check payable to Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri at PO Box 104626, Jefferson City, MO 65110-4626.