The COVID-19 pandemic started only eight months after Alexis Wenzowski became executive director of Hamilton Jewish Family Services (HJFS). The agency had recently passed a new strategic plan that included adding mental health services. But that change was to happen at a slow and progressive pace.
Then, during the first month of the pandemic, HJFS staff were working remotely, except for Wenzowski, who went into the office to keep the food bank open. Many clients were coming in crying and sharing stories of stress and emotional hardship.
“I realized I had a choice. I can struggle through this, or I can write grants and get services and supports in place to really help these people,” Wenzowski says. Mental health counselling was soon added to the agency’s programs.
This compassion and get-it-done attitude are among what agency staff, volunteers and Hamilton community members are going to miss most when Wenzowski leaves her position in July to take on a new role as director of operations for Winnipeg Jewish Child and Family Services.
“Alexis came into our lives when we really needed her, ” says Hanna Schayer, HJFS board president. “Carol Krames, who was universally beloved, was ill and we had to find somebody who could take the position of executive director. We interviewed Alexis and at the end of the interview, we were elated.
“She’s got all the skills you want in an executive director but what really came across was just how fine a person she is. There’s this really good mind couched in this person who has a wonderful sense of humour and an enormous amount of compassion.”
Schayer says Wenzowksi built on the foundation Krames had created of an agency rooted in compassion and Jewish values. Wenzowski also knew that to serve a community facing increasing challenges associated with mental health, poverty and aging, she needed to broaden connections outside of the Jewish community. “She needed to make our larger community understand that there are significant issues around Jewish poverty and food insecurity, that we needed the same kind of resources that other communities needed,” Schayer said. Through her outreach, Wenzowski was able to make connections and garner new funding.
Wenzowski says the agency reimagined how it could work with other Jewish organizations, such as through growing community gardens with Beth Jacob and Kehila Heschel School and partnering with Federation on grant applications. Wenzowski also worked on breaking the myth that HJFS only serves the Jewish population.
“It is part of our agency’s values that no one will ever be turned away. We wanted to invite them to participate in it,” Wenzowski says.
For the past couple of years, the Dundas Valley Sunrise Rotary Club has been growing produce for the HJFS food bank. This year, HJFS will become a full member of Hamilton Food Share, which includes getting grants from the organization, being voting members at its AGM and being part of Hamilton’s Emergency Food Network. HJFS has also been able to increase its offerings to include food such as milk and eggs.
“Having worked alongside Alexis, I have seen her passion and genuine care of people accessing supports at Hamilton Jewish Family Services in action,” says Joanne Santucci, CEO of Hamilton Food Share. “Her commitment to ensuring that any member of the Jewish community in Hamilton experiencing hunger had access to kosher food resources was instrumental in helping shape the food diversity and inclusion work happening at Hamilton Food Share. We wish her well in her future endeavors and thank her for fight against hunger in our community.”
Christine Nusca, HJFS office manager, is also grateful for Alexis’ work for the community.
“It was an honour get to know and work beside her,” Nusca says. “Upon Alexis’ arrival she embraced the community and helped to strengthen the bonds between HJFS, Jewish organizations and organizations at large to further the mission of Hamilton Jewish Family Services. Alexis was always compassionate, kind and understanding of all who walked through our doors. I know that staff and clients wish her well in her new endeavor but will miss her caring nature and her sense of humour.”
Along with the growth of the food security program and mental health services, Wenzowski is proud of the agency’s budget growth, which has gone from $350,000 a few years ago to $880,000 in 2022 through an increase in donations and grants. HJFS also added a second location at J Hamilton for its mental health services. When she started, Wenzowski was the agency’s only full-time staff member. Now there are seven, with five more part time.
“This has been the opportunity of a lifetime for me. Leaving has been the hardest personal and professional decision I’ve ever had to make,” Wenzowski says. “I have been privileged to lead an organization where I had an incredibly kind and dedicated board, presidents who gave me the space to be the executive director I could be and a tremendous staff with big hearts who were able to navigate change through the pandemic. And the community was so welcoming and loving to me.
“When I came in, I tried to think about what Carol valued and tried to make sure that the culture of the agency remained the same—and that was a kind place for everyone. I know the agency will continue to be run by the community for the community. I know it will continue to be a small agency with such a big heart.”