Relentless and beautiful: Serving those left out of the economy

When Joe (BA ’81, MA ’82, LLD ’19) and Stephanie Mancini (BA ’82, LLD ’19) graduated in the middle of a recession 40 years ago, they knew they wanted to use their hearts and minds to respond to what they were seeing around them.

“1982 was considered a crisis year in the economy. It was a time of very high-interest rates and high unemployment. We saw our friends and family struggling to find work,” Joe Mancini recalls. “We were university students talking to 40 and 50-year-old men and women who were truly in pain about their family situation because of lack of work. The options were just so minimal.

We wanted to build a culture of service, and a place of hospitality for people who were left out of work.

“We wanted to build a culture of service, and a place of hospitality for people who were left out of work.”

After graduating from St. Jerome’s University, a federated partner of the University of Waterloo, the couple opened The Working Centre in downtown Kitchener to offer career and job assistance. Not long after they established the centre, they opened St. John’s Kitchen to feed members of the community experiencing food insecurity – a reality closely tied to unemployment.

A different time, same mission

Now 40 years later, the couple, who responded to the economic crisis that defined their generation, is serving a new generation struggling to find its way in the wake of a global pandemic.

Faced with the realities of the COVID-19 crisis, the Mancinis are again responding with service and hospitality. The social enterprise grew last year to include critical shelter services such as the St. Andrew’s Shelter and the University Avenue Shelter, which provide interim housing for 60 and 80 people respectively. St. John’s Kitchen also expanded to provide day shelter and access to showers, laundry, harm reduction, warm clothing and coffee.

“Our work, as it has been lived during the pandemic, has been hard and deep, relentless and beautiful, as we have stood with people who are left out in so many ways – of housing, indoor spaces, bathrooms, safety and work,” Stephanie says.

COVID-19 has exacerbated inequities within the community with the most vulnerable bearing the greatest costs. With rates of homelessness on the rise in Waterloo region, the need for support is high, say Joe and Stephanie.

Where meaningful work happens

As university students, the Mancinis were less interested in a standard career trajectory and more interested in leaning into issues of inclusion and community building.

Stephanie Mancini says they didn’t plan what they would do after graduation, but “we knew we wanted to use our minds, our hearts and our action to find some way to respond to what we were seeing in the world around us.”

It’s a similar sentiment that many people are feeling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mancinis have noticed a substantial change
in people’s understanding of the meaning of work.

“What we learned during COVID-19 is that community is critical, and people are committing to that understanding,” Stephanie says. “People are saying, ‘I want to do something meaningful in my work.’”

Bringing your whole self to the work

The Working Centre team added more than 55 employees last year, many of whom transferred from other occupations such as hospitality, health care and manufacturing. The Mancinis welcome talents from all professional backgrounds but say it is less about the formal training a person has, and more about being adaptive and bringing yourself into the role.

“Talent is only slightly related to education,” Joe Mancini says. “More important is the intuition of participating with your skills, craft, knowledge and dedication to the task at hand. This happens when we bring our whole selves, our relationships and our capacity to change into the work we do.”

The Mancinis say the pandemic has shown us that community and relationships can make a difference in how we live our lives, and this is a good lesson for people currently in school or looking to carve a new path.

“Bringing your mind, heart and action into your work every day can be hard. It is also where real and meaningful work happens."