We asked outgoing Executive Director Abe Harms to reflect on his 22 years of service with MCS. Here are his musings…
My time here at MCS has been a rewarding and rich experience. I have been involved in one way or another from the very beginning and it is with mixed emotions that I leave MCS. I was on the Ontario Immigrant Advisory Committee (OMIAC)* that Bill Janzen, from the MCC Ottawa Office, led.
I always considered George Rempel a good friend who was at the Aylmer MCC office from about 1979 to 1992. I was principal of the Aylmer Bible School that whole time (except for a study leave) George was at the MCC office. We would often have lunch together and he would draw me in wherever he could. He would talk about starting a thrift store and senior’s residence. He convinced me to be co-chair of the Menno Lodge Board and I later became chair when it was built.
George drew others in, like Victor Fast and Mary Boniferro, and the office grew from a one-person staff. In 1987 the Aylmer Resource Centre opened and Victor came and asked me about naming it ARC. Arthur Driedger was parachuted in to incorporate the local thrift store board and all the MCC services under one Board. He tried for 2 years to recruit me to take the Aylmer position. Eventually, I agreed to an interview.
In my interview, David Worth, E.D. of MCCO said “we need a two headed eagle” as E.D. of the Aylmer and Area Inter-Mennonite Community Council (AAIMCC) that oversaw the thrift store and regional manager of the Aylmer MCC office.
My work here began August 3, 1999. Once we had gotten over the millennium bug scare, the first challenge was learning to work with two entities that were to become one. The administrative committee that oversaw the store had no experience as a policy setting board, but MCC provided professional oversight. One of the AAIMCC Board members said: “that was Arthur Driedger’s job description for you, now we will give you ours”. In time, we learned to work together and it has been a pleasure to work with the various Boards. I thank the various members, especially this current Board as we transition over.
It was my first summer here that we started the annual Auction Sale to raise funds for our programs. This has run every year until COVID-19 temporarily shut it down. I was amazed at how frequently the ARC was asked to translate brochures and little messages. I began to answer these requests with “you need to do these orally on a cassette or VHS”. We started to muse about setting up a radio, but MCC wanted to reduce and spin off its programing and not begin more. Finally, a small committee met to get the ball rolling and we were able to persuade AAIMCC to adopt the project and in May of 2003 we got the radio license. It was a good thing I did not know what all is involved in setting up a radio station or else we might not have one.
Every change and development was new and I had no history to fall back on. In 2008 the name changed to Mennonite Community Services (MCS) and both entities were merged into one corporation and one local Board. We had to build the whole new structure from HR to a strategic plan. Overnight MCS grew from having 3 or 4 part-time employees to at least 10 mostly full-time. We found new funding and since then have negotiated all our funding agreements ourselves, made policies and came on our own. This was every bit as hard as I had imagined. I was so glad for Donna Lunn and her contribution.
I have had some very special helpers, mentors and cheerleaders over the years and they have been such a blessing. On one of my first days here, Wendell Graves, Clerk for the Town of Aylmer, came into my office to welcome me. That was one of my most meaningful early experiences. Jerry Hildebrand, on staff for the first year I was here, had such a pastoral heart. Henry Hildebrand was an amazing business man who came from the private sector and worked for us in employment services for 3 years. Mary Boniferro was on staff when I came and she was a good trainer. Her education, expertise and demeanor was so valuable for the first 10 years. John B Wiebe came to us from working at the Ministry of Community and Social services of the Ontario government. His soft spoken confidence was ever so valuable. Even though OMIAC ceased its activities shortly after I came, Bill Janzen remained an avid supporter of the work in Aylmer and to me personally.
I would like to name all current and past staff and say how they have made MCS more valuable, but space restricts me to only name a few. Henry Rempel was the best person to give the radio a footing, he had a wonderful commanding presence. Anita Harms, my wife, was the last person my predecessor hired and she started to manage the FESPA program about a month after I began. She was such a good leader, advisor and co-worker and she is still the best mentor and cheerleader I’ve ever had, 24/7. Anna Bergen was my assistant at the Aylmer Bible School, and when the school closed she went back to college. One of my first actions was to hire her as bookkeeper and FESPA assistant. Up to that point the office did shoebox accounting and Anna brought it up to a gold standard. MCS will continue to be in good hands as Anna is a professional, knowledgeable, caring and loving leader.
I have often wondered what it would be like if I had gone to get my MBA instead of my M.Div. I did not take that many leadership courses but I believe I was blessed with many good examples and I had a positive theological disposition needed at the time. I am not here for myself but for others. I tried to focus on others rather than myself, seeing each person as made in the image of God whom I need to love.
I have lived such a rich life that I could never have afforded on a much bigger salary. I’ve been to at least 20 countries, had Faspa with an Old Colony Vorsänger in Campeche, stayed with an immigrant family in Paraguay, had a tour of a cave in Switzerland where early Anabaptists gathered, and I’ve been introduced in the Ontario legislature.
MCS has changed a lot since it became its own entity. I feel like it is has also become better known in the community. Networking has been so beneficial and it has garnered so much confidence, trust and generosity. Whether it was a sponsorship of a staff member to a conference in Paraguay or a multi-million dollar investment in infrastructure, contacts came through. The apex of community support was when I was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. Individuals, businesses and agencies have been so willing to invest with MCS. It was always my dream for MCS to be big enough and have enough capacity that if governments or churches ever needed any services to be done in the area, MCS would be the agency of choice.
I think there is a bright future for MCS and I have a dream that it will be even more of a storehouse of information. That we have print and audio resources to share. To partner with academic institutions such as Fanshawe College and Steinbach Bible College so that if people want academic courses it would be possible. If churches or partnering agencies want seminars on a wide range of topics, MCS would be first and last place to look in order to find it. That MCS would be resourced enough to have staff to attend community meetings and participate in projects to help shape community. That MCS would be in a position to offer more programs and have the capacity to apply for the various grants available, big or small.
Overall, the last 22 years have been an enriching and rewarding experience. I trust that Eddy Rempel will receive as much advice and support as I did and that MCS will continue to grow and prosper as it helps to settle and integrate newcomers and participate in growing a more dynamic and invigorating society.
*For more on OMIAC, see Build Up One Another, by William Janzen, MCCO, 1998, especially pg 6.
Join us for the public Retirement Celebration for Abe Harms
Thursday, August 19, 2021
300 Talbot St. W., Aylmer, ON
(Aylmer Thrift Store parking lot)
3pm-5pm: Drive-Thru to give your well-wishes to Abe (COVID friendly version of an open house!)