The New York-based organization was suffering a crisis in 1990. Its founder, Father Bruce Ritter, had been forced to leave amid allegations of sexual abuse and mishandling of funds. The charity was on the front page of newspapers every day for weeks. There were real fears that the negative publicity would destroy the organization, undoing years of good work.
Eager to right their ship, representatives of Covenant House approached McGeady, who was then associate director of Catholic Charities in Brooklyn, and asked her to take over. She pondered the offer, unsure about whether to accept.
“I prayed and asked God what he wanted,” McGeady, who is now 75 and plans to step down soon, said recently from her office in the old Maritime Building on West 17th Street in Manhattan. “I thought about the kids. They needed someone who understood them to take on this program. I thought, I’ll give it my best shot, but I’m not sure anyone can save this place.”
When McGeady, whose family roots are in Donegal, came on board she found a worn down and demoralized staff. Donations rapidly drying up. So she went to work. It took, she said, three years to restore morale and for donations to reach previous levels.
Today, fundraising remains a major part of McGeady’s job. Every month, she writes a letter with the story of one of her charges to 700,000 people.
“It costs $30,000 a year to keep a kid; it would cost the government $50,000 if they were in jail,” she said.
Covenant House has three locations in New York that provide around-the-clock service seven days a week. There is the Rights of Passage residential house on 17th Street, which houses up to 150 kids. There is a crisis shelter on 41st Street where up to 97 kids can be put up every night. And there is a place for young mothers and their children where there are 50 beds.
Those numbers account for a fraction of what Covenant House achieves worldwide. Now with 21 centers in six countries and a staff of 23,000, the organization has grown significantly under McGeady. In 1993, for example, it served 31,000 kids. By 1998, that number exceeded 50,000. Today it’s more than 66,000. McGeady, not surprisingly, feels the responsibility of her position keenly.
“Our mission is to street kids,” she said. “They have left home, whether it be an attic or a mansion, and it took a lot of courage to walk away. In almost every case, they have been abused one way or another.”
Covenant House accepts people from the ages of 16-21. McGeady is well aware of the narrow opportunities many of these kids have.
“You take a black 16-year-old boy who runs away from a miserable home, you are not going to find him a foster home,” she said.
A brief tour of one of the three locations in New York last week revealed a place that is much more than a shelter. It is a home, a school and a place where creativity is encouraged. McGeady said Covenant House is determined to provide these young people with marketable skills.
“We give them job training and skills that they can sell in the marketplace,” she said, noting that 10 children are currently learning to cook at Ezekiel’s, a caf