Stepping Into Her Future
By Jane Kendall
Photography by Christian Lee
Susan Cato will retire from her position as Executive Director of Child Abuse Prevention Association (CAPA) in Beaufort County on Dec. 15. She has given 29 years of leadership and service, developing CAPA into a powerful and essential support organization for at-risk children and their families. In addition, she has guided the organization in maintaining a standard of excellence at CAPA’s Open Arms Shelter, which has housed over 2,100 children since its inception in 1985, and provided vital education and services throughout Beaufort County and the communities CAPA serves. After three decades and a nationwide search for her replacement, Susan is delighted to have her successor Christina Wilson “take over the reins.”
On a bright and brisk fall day, I managed to pull Susan out of an all-day meeting in Okatie to talk about what’s next. Clearly, this woman isn’t slacking off in her weeks before retirement. When asked how she felt about her retirement, she said, “It’s surreal. CAPA is part of who I am and what I do. I think it always will be.”
Susan joined CAPA in 1985. She had prior experience with grants administration and municipal government. Like all non-profit organizations, CAPA needed someone who knew how to find and raise money, in addition to all other duties. Her office was in her house and she worked out of the trunk of her car. At that time, Susan's two sons were 12 and 10 and her daughter was 3. She told the story of saying to her daughter on a daily basis that she had to do this for CAPA and that for CAPA. Finally, her toddler daughter—quite annoyed—demanded, “Who is this Miss Capa anyway?”
Susan is passionate about the topic of child abuse. She sees the trajectory of her career in child abuse prevention as part of “God’s plan,” although it’s not what she initially envisioned for herself. Hesitantly, she acknowledged her own difficult childhood made her a strong advocate. “I experienced the alchemy of my anger being changed to passion. I couldn’t help every child, but I could help one child at a time,” she said.
Before meeting Susan, I asked Tina Kuhn—Susan’s co-worker and director of Open Arms Shelter—if she could give me a short quote about Susan. Two pages of frantically scribbled notes later, I know Tina’s admiration is heartfelt and limitless. Tina marvels at Susan’s “compassionate heart for children” and even after 29 years, she isn’t burnt out.
I asked Susan about this. She said in the beginning she knew every child at the shelter. Ultimately, she had to pull back from such intense engagement in order to be an effective advocate outside. Still she talked about the successes of children who have come through the shelter with beaming maternal pride. “I believe hope and resilience are things children can be taught. You never know who you might reach, but if we help one child, it’s worth it,” she said.
So what is next? There are no fixed plans. She mentioned she is creative. That creativity is apparent in her style: the graphic scarf, the beautiful jewelry. She would like to spend some time painting. She would like to volunteer four hours a week to help two or three women who are “burning the candle at both ends,” and need some managerial assistance. She feels strongly that women are uncomfortable asking for help and they can become overwhelmed and overloaded by life. She wants to offer relief. She will continue to volunteer at CAPA. As Susan sits musing, I’m struck by a sense of expansiveness and opportunity. She has spent decades instilling resilience in children by encouraging them to “take the first step.” I’m sure her step into the future will lead her somewhere meaningful.
Far, Far East: Susan may accompany her husband on a mission trip to China. She’s interested in an import/export business, promoting crafts by local Chinese women.
Her own children: With a son and two grandchildren in California, a son in Pittsburgh and her daughter here, Susan wants time to visit with her children and grandchildren.
Surprise, surprise: Friends and colleagues consider her a consummate planner, but Susan is open to whatever happens in the future. No plans.