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Ellicott City resident works to 'give love with a big heart' as new CEO of Catholic Relief Services

Sean L. Callahan of Ellicott City is the new President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.
Sean L. Callahan of Ellicott City is the new President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

A chance encounter late at night at an isolated intersection in Nicaragua over a quarter of a century ago remains a vivid memory for Sean Callahan.

This month the Ellicott City resident became president and CEO of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, capping a 28-year career with the international humanitarian organization.

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In 1990, he had been with CRS just two years, and was waiting at a traffic light in a poverty-stricken village. Two young girls tapped on his car window and asked for a ride. He agreed. Once inside, the sisters offered to sell their bodies for $5 ... or even a T-shirt.

"I told them that was not something I wanted from them, nor something they should ever do," recalled Callahan.

Between sobs, the girls' story emerged. Their mother was disabled and couldn't work. They had turned to soliciting men to earn money to help feed and clothe their family.

Callahan bought meals for the girls, ages 13 and 14, and explained that his agency could help the family gain access to education, food and medical care. He then drove them to a bus station and bought them passes home. Still crying as they prepared to depart, the sisters said they understood what he had told them.

"'You want to give love with a big heart,'" one of them said.

Callahan, 56, believes that long-ago incident was more than an accident of serendipity. He holds it up as emblematic of what drives him to this day.

"They were forced to sacrifice their childhood and their innocence through an accident of birth," said Callahan, who grew up in Andover, Mass., the son of a physician and nephew of missionaries. He holds a master's degree in law and diplomacy from Tufts University.

"The poor among us deserve the very best, and we must be very, very sure that our investments will help them reap what they need," he said, noting the organization in 2015 invested $900 million to assist 127 million people in 117 countries.

Now, after being promoted from within — he served for five years as the agency's chief operating officer in charge of overseas and U.S. operations and human resources — Callahan has a job title that is more high-profile.

He represented the organization Tuesday, for instance, at an all-day event in Washington called "Passing the Baton 2017: America's Role in the World," which marks the transfer of power from one administration to the next and is hosted by the United States Institute of Peace.

Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn were among notables from the outgoing and incoming administrations who gathered to discuss the global challenges facing the United States in the coming months and years.

Beyond attending such headline-making events on behalf of Catholic Relief Services, which will mark its 75th anniversary in 2018, Callahan plans to "always be connected to field operations."

Callahan, who has witnessed firsthand the "unbelievable passion and commitment" of Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama, is adamant he will continue to work in the field despite his promotion to lead more than 5,000 employees. He already has plans to spend two weeks in February traveling to four countries in Africa.

"Leadership should see what is happening on the ground," he said. "I joined CRS for its mission and outreach; I did not plan to go up a corporate ladder."

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Constantine Triantafilou, executive director and CEO of Baltimore-based International Orthodox Christian Charities, is a self-described "field guy" himself and can testify to Callahan's love for meeting people of all cultures and faiths where they live.

"A lot of us in non-governmental organizations are excited to see Sean get the nod," Triantafilou said. "He has a unique view from the field and he instinctively knows who to drop in [to handle a specific situation].

"Sean takes his job very seriously, but he has a happy way of doing things," he said. "He is very compassionate and humble about living his faith, and he walks the walk."

Callahan agreed the relief organization's rapid and informed response to world events is key.

This is especially true with more than 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide — more than half of which come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, he said. That figure is higher than at any time in history, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency website.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates nearly 800 million people worldwide are food insecure, which means they don't know where the next meal is coming from, he said.

He said CRS has "the flexibility and agility to chase things," which the organization accomplishes by taking on volunteers for month-long assignments in emergency situations, whether they are caused by violence or natural catastrophe.

Leadership can also pre-position staff and supplies in locales they believe may end up in harm's way, he said.

Callahan met his wife, Piyali, who works as a research specialist with the Howard County Library System, while working in Calcutta, India. They are the parents of Sahana, 17, and Ryan, 11.

"I am blessed that my wife and kids are understanding about my job, which is to bring love, joy and the compassionate spirit of the U.S. to people across the world," he said. "People of all faiths need to see that people care about them and are committed to helping."

The family resides in a ranch-style home near Kiwanis-Wallas Park, and the kids attend Marriotts Ridge High and Burleigh Manor Middle schools. They are parishioners at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, where Callahan teaches religious education and serves as a Eucharistic minister, trained to offer communion to congregants.

In his job and in his personal life, Callahan never loses sight of what many Americans seem to take for granted.

"How lucky are we to live in a wealthy country and to have the means to transform lives?" he asked. "Isn't showing love what we all want to do?"

Callahan believes we are living in "a prophetic time."

"When we moved to Howard County from Baltimore in 2004, we worried how my wife might be treated since she's foreign-born," he recalled. "But there are people from around the world living here, and [the county] serves as an example of what can be."

Many families in other parts of the world aren't so fortunate, and are forced to migrate due to prejudice and other factors, he said.

"We at CRS want to help people overseas to continue to live in their communities by empowering them so they can hold themselves together" in today's uncertain times, he said.

"Some people are stunned to learn that the U.S. would want to help them, but that's the true spirit of America. We go in with energy where there are people facing hopelessness."

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