Article: 20 Years at The Working Centre

By Joe and Stephanie Mancini, Good Work News, June 2002

"The Working Centre is enmeshed in a cycle of community that provides immeasurable benefits to the hundreds of people who participate in countless ways. It is a community where people pitch in, where friendships develop, where people help each other during good times and in crisis."

The Working Centre started from humble beginnings in May 1982 as a response to unemployment and poverty in downtown Kitchener. 20 years later we have survived “as an independent instrument of self-help community development” that has woven itself into the fabric of Kitchener-Waterloo.

The ‘Tools for Living’ graphic above, which Andy Macpherson first illustrated for Good Work News in 1994, is from a motto that we used in the early 1990’s. The goal was to emphasize that simple manual labour from growing food to riding a bike to get around is a joyful, creative act that teaches us about our limitations and about respect for God’s creation. It is a reminder that through formal and informal work that people can exercise their creative spirit, realize their human dignity and participate in the development of society.

Christian Aggard of The Record has captured the spirit of work behind The Working Centre in an article where he describes, “The prevailing assumption at The Working Centre and its programs is that a few people with a few tools can do extraordinary things for their neighbourhoods. It is a street level democracy that sows community gardens and fixes bikes for people who can’t afford main street rates.”

After 20 years, the organization has moved and shifted in ways that takes philosophy very seriously. A patron and volunteer from St. John’s Kitchen, just shakes his head when he thinks about the complexity of running the Kitchen. How do you achieve the proper balance when, for example, one group of youth demands attention while older folks then feel neglected? The answer, as the patron pointed out, is not apparent. There is no easy solution. It is in the give and take of daily living that problems are worked out. Reciprocity is not about pat answers but the acceptance of ever changing possibilities based on the openness of each party to contribute. Each day, at the Kitchen the stress and joy of this particular philosophy works itself out.

In the midst of this tension of working out an informal community space are the concrete results. So much positive work is completed by people who see that they can make a difference by chopping vegetables, providing computer support, fixing someone’s computer, sweeping and mopping the floor at the end of lunch, mentoring support through BarterWorks, teaching sewing or recycling bikes. The source of all these community contributions comes from people who choose to use their available time in efforts that have obvious, tangible results.

But the actual jobs do not describe the deep community connections and relationships that constantly grow from this work. The Working Centre is enmeshed in a cycle of community that provides immeasurable benefits to the hundreds of people who participate in countless ways. It is a community where people pitch in, where friendships develop, where people help each other during good times and in crisis. The accumulation of all these efforts adds up to a lively community that combines helpfulness with people creating their own meaningful work.

The development of these projects took shape with the recognition that producerism – the ability of people to produce things themselves (or in community) that formerly they paid for – is a way to weave through the cycle of poverty. Each project developed with the recognition that the people who use The Working Centre and St. John’s Kitchen rarely drove a car, recycled clothing and furniture and generally tread lightly on the earth. The community tools projects have attempted to respect and enhance a simple way of living.

This growing web of interconnectedness and social cooperation fits well into the notion of sustainable living that recognizes how work will change in both the overdeveloped and underdeveloped worlds. Such changes will inevitably include

  • environmental conditions that demand that the means of livelihood become less destructive of the earth
  • redefining work to include activities which enhance the environmental sustainability of local communities.
  • recognizing the role of the third sector as facilitating ‘full-engagement’ - both employment and community self-help in order to meet basic material needs and creative desires.

In reflecting on twenty years, the community tools work has evolved within our particular basic strengths which include the operation of an extensive community job search resource centre, the provision of a daily meal at St. John’s Kitchen and the revitalization of two buildings on Queen Street.

The Working Centre

The Working Centre has established a reputation as an agency that provides intensive, individual and customized career and job search assistance with adults in the K-W area. Our experience has shown that the adults we work with appreciate a solid base of job search and career assistance while being able to work at their own pace and schedule. They benefit from having access to formal resources, tools, employment counsellors and group workshops in an approach that provides independence and flexibility.

The resource centre includes a café like atmosphere where there is access to computers, phones, community voice mail, faxing, photocopying, library and newspapers. Over the last four years we have added a strong computer-training component. We offer a variety of affordable options and learning styles that suit people living on a limited income. This includes on-line self-directed training and/or courses for Word, Access, Excel, Microsoft Office User Specialist and A+ Hardware Certification. We have established a computer lab, a certified testing centre and will soon implement an assessment centre.

St. John’s Kitchen

St. John’s Kitchen is a community Kitchen that has been open for the past 17 years serving a hot meal to approximately 230 people each weekday. We open our doors at 9:00 am to anyone who wishes to have a coffee and whatever we have available for a continental style breakfast. Our philosophy, to accept all who come in, resonates deeply with Christ’s words – whoever welcomes you, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me. (Mathew 10:40) Each week over 80 volunteers help set-up, prepare, serve and clean up after the meal. Most of the volunteers are also people who come to dine with us. As with any community, the reason for coming to St. John’s is richly varied. Some struggle with physical or emotional challenges, some are pensioners on low income, others high school students doing community service, social workers or street kids. As each person is a unique creation, there is no stereotypical “person of St. John’s.” The rich fabric of our community makes St. John’s a vibrant place to eat lunch!

Revitalization of 43 Queen Street South

One of the particular strengths of The Working Centre has been the long-term presence of solid and dedicated Board members. Their vision made the development of 43 Queen possible. This year The Working Centre Board of Directors includes Roman Dubinski, Gord Crosby, Rita Levato, Arleen Macpherson, Maurita McCrystal, Margaret Motz, Mike Shimpo and Ken Westhues. In the following paragraph Ken Westhues summarized the meaning and process of the 43 Queen project.

“The process by which this project has been carried out reflects the same integrated approach. It was not as if blueprints were drawn, bids invited and tenders let. Instead, plans for a derelict building arose gradually, from the bottom up, with broad consultations, and took shape slowly, revised along the way, with contributions of material and work from literally hundreds of individuals and groups. Ownership of the building at 43 Queen resides with the Working Centre only in a narrow legal sense. The true owners are all the residents, volunteers, tradespeople and donors who turned an empty old building into a vibrant community resource.”

The work at 43 Queen was recognized this Feburary at the Celebrating Our Successes event by the Kitchener Downtown Business Association when it named The Working Centre as this years Downtown Leader along with Manfred Conrad of the Cora Group.

The Working Centre has been very fortunate over 20 years to have operated as an alternative organization that provides concrete services to the community, while remaining true to its original vision of recognizing and celebrating the true dignity of the different kinds of work that makes a community. There are many stories that could easily fill a new book to describe that rocky, winding and uphill path. We are very grateful to the hundreds of people who have made their contributions to this story.

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