From left: master’s students Alberto Salguero and Patrick Kathoni, and Prof. Harry Cummings.

Helping improve services and funding prospects for a growing population of Mennonites in southwestern Ontario was the purpose of a recent project by U of G researchers. Prof. Harry Cummings, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, hopes his recent study of Mennonite Community Services (MCS) will help improve thousands of lives in rural Elgin County.

Along the way, he says, the project has further burnished Guelph’s reputation for studies of rural planning and development. “Let’s build a better planet, but let’s start at home. To me, this is part of The BetterPlanet Project,” says Cummings, referring to U of G’s fundraising campaign for food, health, environment, community, and teaching and learning.

Along with two grad students, he completed a project last year intended to help MCS in Aylmer, Ont., streamline its services and improve prospects for residents of Elgin and neighbouring counties. During repeated visits to the area south of London, the Guelph team interviewed residents, led focus groups and administered surveys to help the agency gauge how well it meets local needs.

Last summer, the researchers shared their recommendations with MCS. So far, the agency has used their report to strengthen funding applications to governments and agencies, says Abe Harms, executive director of the organization. Most of that funding is needed for settlement services, he says.

About 15,000 Mennonites live in Elgin, making up about one-quarter to one-third of the county’s population. Another 10,000 live in Haldimand and Oxford counties, says Harms. It’s the largest concentration of Low German-speaking Mennonites in the province, he adds, contrasting them with Mennonites elsewhere in Ontario.

Most have come from Latin America since the 1950s. Many are descended from conservative Mennonites who had left Western Canada after the First World War to settle in South and Central America, particularly Mexico. “They keep coming,” says Harms.

Many lack higher education and English-language skills. They often need help with basics such as landing a job, acquiring a driver’s licence or completing government forms.

The not-for-profit organization supports not just recent immigrants but also long-term residents who are still not fully integrated into the community. “Here they remain newcomers much longer than others,” says Harms, who was a teenager when his family came from Mexico in 1966.

Besides running an employment agency and providing access to language and life-skills courses, MCS runs a thrift store and radio station in its downtown Aylmer location. The centre is run by a board of directors and employs 18 salaried staff and several seasonal part-timers.

Cummings was invited to work on the project by an Elgin resident and long-time research partner. Cummings says the project fits the mandate of his school and that of the University.

“This is the University’s community service function at work. We bring faculty expertise and enthusiastic students who have great ideas, and some are going to stay around to work in the community, so we’re investing in the community.”

Harms says involving the University lends weight to his organization. “Guelph has a good reputation. That gives the study a certain credibility and gives MCS a lot more credibility with municipal governments and other agencies.”

For the project, Cummings recruited two students pursuing master’s degrees in rural planning and development. Patrick Kathoni and Alberto Salguero are both recent arrivals from other parts of the world.

Before coming to Guelph, Kathoni knew nothing about Ontario Mennonites. He studied business in Burundi after growing up in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He learned English only after arriving in Canada in 2009.

He was surprised at just how conservative much of the Mennonite community is – “even more so than many African communities,” he says.

Kathoni plans to pursue a PhD in public administration. His brother, Nia, studies computer science at U of G.

Salguero grew up in Ecuador and studied business in Honduras. He worked with indigenous people in small communities for a decade before immigrating to Canada in 2007. His wife, Patricia Aguilar, also from Ecuador, studies food science at Guelph.

Salguero had known about Mennonites living in parts of Central and South America, but he was intrigued by the importance of religious values in the lives of many Elgin county residents. “I thought it was amazing how grounded they are in their faith.”

He hopes their study will help MCS grow and improve its services as well as train its own employees in leadership.

Earlier, Cummings had worked on immigrant issues with Mennonites in Toronto and St. Jacob’s, Ont. He’s now completing a project on the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program run by the Rural Ontario Institute.

Cummings says the Aylmer project showed him a new aspect of diversity in rural Ontario and reinforced something else. “The people of the world are not isolated. They exist in each other’s back pocket. We need to work with each other in the community, in the world which we’re in. This is part of our global commitment.

“We need to deal with malaria in Botswana as well as provincial literacy levels in rural Ontario. Both are relevant issues and need to be dealt with.”