How did the concept of a “compassionate city” emerge in St. Catharines?
Walter Sendzik ran for municipal office on a platform to reduce poverty in St. Catharines, which was an intrepid entry into local politics. Then, after his election success, there was a visit to Ottawa to participate in a “Poverty Summit” organized by the Tamarack Institute, a registered charity, committed to eradicating poverty. Walter Sendzik was one of only three mayors to attend. But he was inspired by what he heard to launch a program here in Niagara.
When you enter his office, you are immediately put at ease. He greets me in his blue socks, no shoes, and I notice a guitar resting against a wall.
“It starts from within,” he says, and he explains municipal strategies employed thus far. “Tim Arnold from Southridge Shelter taught me a lot about compassion. Compassion is the powerful outcome when we combine care and action.” He says that at Southridge he recognized that people needed more than just a bed and food. “They needed friendship and warmth.”
After brain-storming with stakeholders, the mayor organized five bus tours throughout the city involving 20 staff members in each bus, along with a few speakers aboard who could better discus and explain the “invisible” areas that they visited. Sometimes the messages were stark with street people describing what it’s like “not being treated as a human being.”
How did staff react? “Not a dry eye after each tour,” says the mayor. He meets regularly with community leaders, and he has become a motivator and an inspiration for change. Sometimes it’s as simple as explaining to the police that “prostitutes” are actually sex trade workers. Walter says it’s all about attitude and “not sweeping things under the rug.”
The mayor attended a second poverty summit in Edmonton, and he will be a featured speaker at the next one in May in Hamilton.
His strength is that he appears to me to be a natural leader. He was the Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, and in seven years, he organized the local chamber into a Niagara Chamber with more than 1,400 members.
And the message that I receive, is that compassion trickles down from the top.
Maybe this impulse might have started genetically much earlier than in Ottawa after he was first elected. When I ask for a personal compassion stimulus, he reflects back on his Polish great, great grandmother who eventually opened a food store and who altruistically helped to keep some people from starving when times were very tough.
“Language and lens are the important ingredients,” he says “in making people feel more welcome.”
There is a website available which describes the mayor’s initiatives and how to get involved – http://www.compassionatestc.ca/ and he discussed items with me for down the road, for example, the concept of reforestation in city parks.
When asked about a budget, Walter says that the amazing thing is that there is little real cost. It’s more about attitude, adopting the lens of compassion and making it part of your life, in other words, creating “a culture shift.”
He stressed that in his personal life, he ensures that he allots time for his children, attending their school games, simply being present.
Leaving St. Catharines City Hall, I noticed office signage that said “Welcome to Citizens First.” Walter Sendzik is an inspiration for me. With all the negativity and tumult in contemporary politics, I feel positive upon leaving, and I think that this city is fortunate to have someone like him at its helm.
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