Photo/Ingrid Heide

Participants at the 2017 Low German Networking Conference in Aylmer were able to attend workshops that expanded their knowledge of the Low German speaking community.

In Ontario, as is the case across Canada, there is a group of people united by a professional commitment to make our country, our provinces, and our communities healthier, safer, and more welcoming: teachers, social workers, and health practitioners chief among them. But they face a challenge: the diversity of our communities, which is a great strength, also complicates their work. So it is with one very unique and small community in Ontario – the Low German-speaking Mennonites.

The Low German communities are scattered throughout southwestern Ontario.  The largest pocket lives in the vicinity of Aylmer, with smaller numbers in Greater Essex (Leamington)  Chatham Kent, Elmira, Milverton and  Drayton. Most are migrating from Latin America where for many, poverty and sometimes persecution were chronic challenges. Like most immigrants coming to Canada without English or French literacy, culture shock and adaptation are challenges – both for the families themselves, and those in the social and health services tasked with making their transition smoother.

Lily Hiebert Rempel welcomes conference participants.Photo/Ingrid Heide

It was in bridging this cultural gap that MCC Ontario found a unique role to play.

In 1993, Lily Hiebert Rempel, at that time a public health nurse, helped to organize the first Low German Networking Conference, in response to a need she saw in her own work. “It was very much a practical project for me – I saw in my own experience what a knowledge gap there was so I decided to try and start connecting people to help us in our work.” Twenty-five years later, Hiebert Rempel is now the Low German program coordinator for MCC Ontario which since 2008 has been the lead agency involved in organizing the conferences, together with other community partners.

Hundreds of service providers from the private and public sector gather to listen to speakers, hear stories from the Low German community, and to share experiences and learnings from each other.

One of the main learnings every year is the extent to which faith and religious traditions have a role in the Low German community’s world-view and how that affects things like education and healthcare.

Mindy Zeiter, a social worker in London, called it, “the best continuing education I have experienced in my career.” MCC’s trusted connection with the Low German-speaking community provided a unique opportunity for story-sharing and networking. “I loved that each table had different guest speakers that were so open to share their stories. It was easy to network with other professionals sitting with me.” Ultimately, it was an invaluable opportunity to get a peek inside the community: “It promoted more comfort and conversation around difficult topics that would otherwise be hard to discuss with individuals that you just met.”

Ann Suderman, Family and Children Services, Elgin St. Thomas presenting at the 2017 Aylmer Low German Networking Conference..Photo/Ingrid Heide

A key part of the conferences every year is the evaluations that participants fill out in which they outline key lessons they have learned, some of which are very particular. They fall under several categories of things to start doing, things to stop doing, and things to continue doing.

Participant notes from past conferences include:

Start...involving the community in the evaluation of service delivery.

…getting more fathers and men involved.

…increasing outreach to elders and community leaders.

Stop …assuming we know best.

…misinterpreting passivity as agreement.

…generalizing about them and their needs.

Continue…connecting with the church.

…asking questions and listening carefully.

…using small groups instead of newsletters.

These tangible and actionable insights are a key part of what makes these Low German Networking Conferences so valuable for service providers who often feel handicapped by a vast cultural and language divide. And yet year after year, they are equipped and inspired to better serve this unique community who themselves are struggling with their own sense of identity and purpose in a new world.