06/26/2014 11:22 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2014

Anna Babin: Tenacity and Faith Born from Grief

A while back I set out to tell the stories of leaders that inspire people to follow -- not through celebrity or ego or fear, but through humanity. The book -- Peerless: Defy Convention. Lead from the Heart. Watch What Happens has, as often happens with books, taken on a life of its own. And, quite honestly, writing it changed my life. What I found in this process was encouraging and inspiring. These servant leaders we spotlight have changed their world, and achieved amazing results through commitment and effort. Over the next few weeks I want to share some of their stories with you.

People who know Anna Babin speak of her deep faith in God and the tenacity she developed as a young girl which gives her the strength to confront problems from which many would shy away. She was only 10 when her father got sick with esophageal cancer, and just 13 on the New Year's Day he died. She watched helplessly as he went in and out of the hospital, shrinking from 180 to eighty pounds. When the money ran out, the family turned to the VA Hospital for help. The doctors put him wherever they could find a bed, sometimes in the mental illness ward with the patients who cried and screamed throughout the night.

This experience was etched in her mind, and it has impacted everything she has done since. After earning her degree in accounting, Babin went to work at Price Waterhouse and then Service Corporation International, before finding her ultimate purpose in the nonprofit community.

Babin found mentors who taught her the importance of communicating effectively to influence decisions that affect the community. Ten years after graduating from Lamar University, and pregnant with her second child, Babin passed the CPA exam and went on to become United Way's Comptroller and then President of Finance and Administration.

An Uphill Battle
In 1992, Catholic Charities Houston was losing its CEO who had been there only a year. Babin had previously applied for the position when it was open but received no acknowledgment of her interest. When she was asked by a prominent volunteer to apply again, she was skeptical. "I did apply last year, and I never heard one word back I don't know if I want to work for an organization that is so unprofessional," she said. "You know I love my faith, but I know the Catholic Church. Do you think they're ready for a woman in this position?"

Doubtful about there being a genuine opportunity -- not only would she be the first woman in the position, she'd also be the first who wasn't a social worker -- and still chafing from her first experience applying for the job, Babin skeptically applied and wrote on a piece of note paper, "Best wishes. Hope you find the right person," taped the message to her resume, put it in the mail, and didn't give it another thought.

This time Catholic Charities called her back.

She left United Way and assumed leadership of Catholic Charities Houston in July 1993, just days before its budget request was due to the United Way. Trouble came from all directions. The Council on Accreditation for Children and Families had withdrawn the agency's accreditation, employee morale was low and financial record keeping was dismal. Spending hadn't been adjusted even though the agency had no new revenue sources and had been informed by United Way that its contribution would be cut by fourteen percent.

Almost immediately, she was forced to cut $350,000 and eliminate ten staff positions. At one point, the day before it had to make payroll, Babin was informed there was only $46 in the bank. "I thought I was going to have a stroke," she says. "Then she asked about a $6,000 investment line item on the balance sheet and someone opened a file cabinet drawer. Thousands of dollars in stock certificates started flying out.

Her troubles were not over. The Board of Directors took interest in the agency's social purpose, but was not as attentive to the day-to-day operations. The external auditors had noted only a problem in travel receipts when it should have questioned the agency's viability to continue as an ongoing concern. Confronting the auditors in a meeting at the Texas Commerce Bank's Heights office a few months after her appointment, Babin said, "If I'd known then what I know now I wouldn't have taken this job."

Cathy Chapman, Babin's longstanding friend and member of her adoptive family, witnessed Babin's struggles to turn the agency around. "I knew the people at Catholic Charities," Chapman says. "She had to fight against a culture in which people were not paid well so they didn't think they needed to work much. She had to change that."

As she approached the fiscal year end with only four months on the job, Catholic Charities Houston was facing a $250,000 budget shortfall. It had completely tapped out a $290,000 line of credit and it owed a debt of $256,000 to the Archdiocese for capital improvements made to its dilapidated headquarters at 3520 Montrose Boulevard.

Babin assembled the employees. "For the first time ever I pulled the whole staff together and showed them what the numbers were," she says, "because they were in the dark."

She briefed the Board of Directors and brought several along for a meeting to reluctantly tell Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza that the agency would start the next year with a deficit in its budget.

Just one short year later, Catholic Charities Houston was operating in the black. Seven years later, it was operating in new offices, and Babin was building a statewide advocacy program to relieve poverty in Texas.

In The Eye of a Hurricane
In 2005, Anna left Catholic Charities and took the helm at United Way in Houston. On August 31, 2005, the day before she was scheduled to start in her new job, Hurricane Katrina hit. Suddenly and without warning, 10 thousand plus people from New Orleans were escaping the devastation of their city. They were already on Interstate 10, and they were headed for Houston.

Houston Mayor Bill White, informed Anna that he was holding the United Way responsible for coordinating the entire social service response to the influx of people. Who prepares for 10,000 Katrina evacuees from New Orleans to Houston? Life lessons prepared her; it is said that the precursor of giving help is oftentimes the experience of receiving it. Who more qualified to lead Catholic Charities of Houston and Gulf Coast United Way than someone whose own life was forged by social agencies? Her leadership effectiveness is a combination of strong resolve to help those less fortunate -- not to hand out food, but to teach self-sufficiency -- and her passion to communicate her 20:20 Vision to staff and funding sources.

At 4 that afternoon, more than one hundred agency and faith community leaders met to plan out the response of shelter, food, housing, medical care, mental health, hygiene and spiritual help. Operation Compassion was born in the United Way conference room and subsequently more than 40,000 volunteers were trained in mass feeding. She returned home that night sixteen hours after setting foot in her new office. Two days later she sat on a panel in the studios of Channel 11, Houston's CBS affiliate, to convey the collaborative efforts of the United Way of Greater Houston. Three weeks later, with Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Texas Gulf Coast, she did it again.

Today, Babin is as intent as ever on meeting United Way's goals, in particular to lift up more than 100,000 hard-working, low income families who want what every family wants -- a good job, good wages, financial independence, safe and affordable housing and success for their children. Opportunities for increasing their income, and learning to save and to buy homes through collaborative initiatives are core to United Way THRIVE. Children throughout Houston are building strong foundations for their future, spending after school hours with mentors and tutors inside community centers and away from city streets.