Sister Nancy Downing, C.N.D., is the new executive director of Covenant House New York. She became the executive director in December after she had served as interim executive director since May.
She joined Covenant House 10 years ago to provide legal assistance to homeless and trafficked youth, and soon began serving as director of legal services and advocacy.
“I knew when I started it was home,” Sister Nancy, 57, said late last week in an interview with CNY on the Covenant House campus at 460 W. 41st St. in Manhattan.
“There’s something about working with young people, because they’re so filled with hope. There’s a vitality there; there’s a real spirit in them of surviving, and doing more than surviving—thriving.”
CNY visited Covenant House in the early afternoon of Feb. 9—a scheduled interview that coincided with a snowstorm that caused the closure of many businesses and schools in the region. As a result, many of the youths who call the shelter home were on site. The respectful deference and, at the same time, seemingly relaxed interactions several of them had with the executive director were noticeable in their energetic comings and goings that afternoon.
Sister Nancy describes her arrival at Covenant House “as deeply spiritual” as she observed “how the love of God can change everything…We are saving lives here, but it’s really God that’s saving lives. We’re doing little things that brings God’s voice to these young people.”
The executive director’s love of Covenant House encircles the youths served and extends to the staff who selflessly serve them.
“What I’m hoping I can bring here is helping us to be more of a learning culture,” Sister Nancy said, “where our mistakes are things that teach us, where we’re also modeling for our young people what we want for them to be—not blamers and shamers, and our kids have seen plenty of that (in life)—but folks who are listening and saying, ‘I think I can help with this,’ or ‘maybe if we could think about it this way,’ or a person who could ask the next question that gets us to the next place.”
Around the clock, it’s all about love, Sister Nancy said, recalling a talk she gave at a conference on foster care about a year ago. “I said our programs really need to be about love. We need to make sure that these young people know that they are loved, because they so often don’t feel that they are. They need to hear it. They need to know it from the bottom of their toes to the top of their heads.”
“The extraordinary young people” entrusted to the care of Covenant House “need our love and our care, and sometimes our guidance—often our guidance,” Sister Nancy added with a gentle laugh.
She and the staff remind the youths of the opportunities before them at Covenant House and beyond. For some of the youths, the hurdles are personal, and can range from a big issue that is bombarding them to their simply being caught up in thoughts of fun things they would rather be doing. “Sometimes, I think what blocks them is they don’t think they can,” Sister Nancy said, as in, “‘I don’t think I can be in a class because I don’t know enough…’”
“But they mostly need to know that they make a difference, that they matter. Because some of them really don’t know that they matter.
“You can see that, in the young people, that if somebody just held a hand out to them, then they can see a way forward.”
Sister Nancy entered the Congregation of Notre Dame in 1996 and made final vows in 2006.
A native of Manchester, Conn., she is the fourth of fifth children. She holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Southern Maine and a juris doctor degree from Western New England College.