By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published March 28, 2013
ATLANTA—Catholic Charities Atlanta staff are known for their compassion toward people facing adversity.
Miguel San Juan, the new chief executive of CCA, is no exception, and he also experienced it in his own life story, which is a testament to the crucial work of the organization.
“I am honored to be here,” San Juan, 62, said, as he began his new work March 1. “This organization is very close to me.”
San Juan experienced the care and compassion of Catholic Charities firsthand in the early 1960s as he and his older sister, Alina, arrived in the United States as refugees from Cuba. His parents sent their young children here for their protection from the tumultuous political environment in Cuba at that time. They were part of what is now called “Operation Pedro Pan,” Cuban parents quietly sending minor children to the United States, where they were met and sheltered by Catholic Welfare (Catholic Charities) in Miami.
In 1959, Fidel Castro had taken over in Cuba following a revolution that unseated president Fulgencio Batista. Many parents began to fear indoctrination by the new regime and were worried the Cuban government would eventually take away their parental authority. They began sending their children out of the country out of fear for their safety. Between December 1960 and October 1962, about 14,000 children came to the U.S.
While some had relatives here, many did not, so organizations rallied to aid the lone youngsters in their transition to a new life. Catholic Charities helped to place children in foster families in more than 100 cities. They were not adopted because the effort was aimed to preserve the parents’ rights and strive for families eventually to be reunited.
San Juan still remembers the volunteers that greeted the children when they arrived at the Miami airport. He was 11 and his sister, 13. They had no relatives, they did not speak the language, and they were not sure if they would ever see their parents again. But one thing they could understand was that the people who took them in obviously cared for their well being, both physically and spiritually.
They were initially taken to a camp about an hour north of Miami where they stayed for about four months before being placed with a foster family. The attention they received at the camp is something for which San Juan is very grateful, but it did not make the pain of his separation from his parents any easier.
He remembers sneaking out of his room nearly every night and walking to where his sister stayed, as the boys and girls were separated in the camp, and crying under her window.
“It was during one of those times when a nun saw me and as she was escorting me back to my apartment, she took a rosary out of her pocket and gave it to me and said, ‘Mary will be with you.’ I pray that rosary to this day,” he said.
The pains of transition were a difficult burden to bear, but San Juan and his sister were happy when they were eventually placed with a loving Catholic foster family.
“Again with the help of Catholic Charities, we were sent to a foster home in the state of Washington, in a town called Mabton,” he recalled. “We lived with a very loving and caring family.”
It was a great blessing for San Juan that he was able to live with a family that encouraged the faith his parents gave him. Having a strong faith was his “anchor” during the difficult times as a youngster, especially since he was unsure he would ever see his parents again, he said. But even that was something with which Catholic Charities helped.
“Through the good offices of Catholic Charities, once my parents were able to leave Cuba and came to the United States through Mexico, they were instrumental in our reunification,” he said.
San Juan admires the strength of his parents for making such a difficult decision, and he often wonders if he and his wife would be able to do the same thing for their children if the need arose.
“I am extremely fortunate. To this day, I, and my sister likewise, admire the guts and the faith that my parents had in order to make what has got to be a very difficult decision for any parent,” he said.
Since the San Juan siblings had no family living in the U.S. at the time of their arrival, they became very familiar with Catholic Charities and its means of aiding newcomers and refugees.
“We experienced the full range of the services and the good will that was extended to us every step of the way,” from the camp to the foster home, San Juan said. He recognizes the many blessings that were shown to him and his sister during their childhood and brings that same compassion to his new position at CCA.
Since his arrival in the United States, San Juan has taken nothing for granted. Always seeking to advance his education and looking for opportunities to work, he has built an impressive resume of achievements and has worked in various positions over the past few decades.
“When I think back to my arrival … I had no idea what was before me,” he said, adding that he never would have guessed all the opportunities he has been given, working and serving in the United States. “We have become part of this country.”
“We struggled. There were difficult times. But little by little we started becoming more and more self-sufficient,” he said.
San Juan recently moved to Atlanta from Houston, Texas, where he served as managing director of Globalinvest Ventures and Capital, a business consulting firm. Before that, he served as senior vice president for business development where he had a leadership role in a $32 million fundraising campaign known as Opportunity Houston. He helped build a campaign and program model, which allowed the Houston region to proactively market itself for jobs and investment.
San Juan lives in Roswell with his wife, Lucia Navarro, an anchor on CNN Español’s morning show Café CNN, and their three sons.
As he begins his new position, he is encouraged by his own story but also by the decades of service the organization has provided to those in need. His personal interaction with Catholic Charities, coupled with his extensive business and fundraising experience, will help him in this new position, he said. He looks forward to becoming partners with the parishes and the people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and working together to provide whatever assistance they can.
“Part of what Catholic Charities does is to make people self-sufficient and give them hope. In our case, you have the perfect example of what some assistance up front meant to us and how we have come full circle,” said San Juan.
“I feel very comfortable being here because I can relate, having been a refugee myself and knowing what an immigrant goes through,” he said. “We’re trying to do the best we can to make those individuals and those families whole and self-sufficient.”