Walter Sendzik, mayor of St. Catharines, wants his city to be known as "The Compassionate City". He shared his vision for this at a recent breakfast hosted by YFC/ Youth Unlimited St. Catharines.
The breakfast raised awareness of the work being carried out by the youth ministry. It was also an opportunity to share the future vision of their Merritt St. facility. Invited members of St. Catharines' business community were on hand to hear both the mayor's comments and a presentation by YFC staff.
The Mayor began the morning by presenting the youth outreach with a cheque for $5 000, the amount raised from a golf tournament sponsored by the Town of St. Catharines earlier this year. This proved to be a natural transition into the topic that he would eventually speak on, the topic of branding St. Catharines as a compassionate city.
According to the Mayor, the goal of this program is to take people that feel that they are invisible in St. Catharines -- unseen by many throughout the course of the day -- and help them to feel like they are part of the greater community.
He recalled the days when, as a candidate, he ran on the platform of addressing poverty in the community. Since becoming mayor, he has spoken to many faith groups and business groups in the city on the topic.
He also recounted a pivotal moment when he was returning from a poverty summit in Ottawa. As he listened to people from various communities across Canada share on what poverty looked like in their municipalities, he began to understand what cities can do to help fight poverty. "But there was something scratching at me," he said to the assembled crowd. "There's got to be something more to this. This can't just be about creating municipal transit or more affordable housing."
The Mayor then spoke of a training programme at City Hall that was different from any other. City employees were loaded onto a bus and taken on what he called "a journey into community". They were brought to places in St. Catharines where homeless individuals live, like underneath the Fourth Avenue bridge, and Centennial Park, where drug use is the norm. "We have 600 employees," said the Mayor. "I got to tell you, maybe 550 had never seen these places in our community."
Accompanying the employees on the bus were a recovering drug addict and a former sex trade worker, both providing commentary and explaining what it was like to have people stare through them, unwilling to acknowledge their existence.
The Mayor then touched on some ways that the city is already partnering with various groups to achieve this vision. The examples that he gave showed that some city employees and programmes were in fact already starting to think differently when it came to how local government could help with the poverty problem. For instance, some city programmes, in the past, would have certain questions on questionnaires that would slot residents into certain categories, creating a situation where people wanting to use the programmes ran the risk of humiliation. This type of questioning is now becoming a thing of the past.
The Mayor added that he has spoken to people not in local government that have expressed how the changes have shifted how they look at their community, something he's proud of. "If that's the only thing I can leave behind after being mayor of our city, that people look at one another in a lens of compassion rather than indifference... then I will consider my term as mayor successful.
"If we change how we think, and how we look at one another, we can change our community, and reduce, remove, and end poverty in our community."
He then turned to the staff of YFC/ Youth Unlimited and complemented them for their work in helping make the invisible people of St. Catharines visible. He specifically highlighted their work with young, pregnant women and young mothers who are struggling financially.
Other communities outside St. Catharines are taking note. The mayor has been invited to speak at various functions in Hamilton and Niagara Falls about the shift taking place in St. Catharines. "More and more communities want to learn about it," he acknowledged. But he stresses that approaching this issue the same way it has been dealt with in the past simply isn't going to work going forward. "Because we can throw money at stuff -- and that's important, we can apply for funding for this and for that -- but if we don't change how we think, and if we don't change how we see one another, then all the funding in the world isn't going to mean anything.
"Government isn't the one that will solve all the issues. It's as a community. It's the business folks. It's a social organizations that have been founded because of the issues we've identified. It's the faith-based organizations that have been around for 200+ years in our community."
So what role can local government play? "I believe the city can be a convenor. We can help by shining a light on the work that's being done."
Rayburn Lansdell, Director of Development at Southwestern Ontario Youth For Christ, then took the podium to share about the work being done in their facility, located at 226 Merritt St. The centre, known as The Deck, opened in 2015 after a lengthy renovation. Along with the programme geared towards young moms, there is an after-school drop-in program and a tutoring program.
The facility does great work in servicing its young clients as it is presently configured, but YFC staff, volunteers, and members of its steering committee are envisioning an expansion of its current kitchen so it can be used to teach basic life skills and nutritional education to young people.
The centre, however, is also straddled with a $250,000 mortgage that YFC staff and Committee members want paid off, so funds can go towards further development of the facility. The breakfast ended with a final appeal to the attendees to help with these costs, and a closing prayer.
The appeal for financial support isn't restricted to those in attendance at the breakfast. Anyone wanting to help this ministry reached its goal can do so by going to the YFC/ Youth Unlimited St. Catharines website and contributing online.