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A better way

by Sonia Preszcator

Stephen Giuliano is chaplain and director of Operation Sharing, an organization offering a range of service programs to residents in Oxford County, Ont.

Ten years ago, Stephen Giuliano found a better way.

“Programs created to specifically address the needs of the poor almost always end up becoming poor programs,” he explained. “What could be accomplished, if we understood that people are broke but not broken? Every day, I see people tapping into their resilience. It’s the stories we tell about poverty, and the approaches we take, that need fixing, not the people.”

As chaplain and director of Operation Sharing, an organization offering a range of service programs to residents of Oxford County, Ont., he set out to fix those problems in his community. And now, his innovative efforts are finding success and gaining international attention.

After graduating high school in Windsor, Ont., with a dismal average, Giuliano, BA’82, MTS’94 (Theology), spent a year training in the Reserves and working the line in a factory. He soon became restless and dissatisfied. Giuliano called his former principal to talk about returning to school to better his grades and chances at postsecondary education. He was told he was not cut out for university.

Undeterred, Giuliano completed an introductory psychology course at the University of Windsor. Despite receiving an A in the course, Western was the only university to offer him admission as a mature student.

“When I got the acceptance in the mail, my first thought was, ‘It must be computer error.’ My second thought was, ‘In September I’m showing up, no matter what,’” he said.

In 1979, his efforts to join the Mustangs football team were sidelined by chronic right shoulder issues. His athletic career might have ended there, if not for Allan Richardson, a friend from residence.

“‘Hey Steve, you still have one good arm. Why don’t you try out for the fencing team?’” Giuliano remembered Richardson saying. “Fast forward three years – I went from never even seeing a sabre in my life, let alone holding one, to captain of the team in my senior year.”

Giuliano earned the Bronze W, the Western Mustangs’ second-highest honour. He ranked among the top five fencers in the province at the time of his graduation.

And that fighting spirit remains alive in him at Operation Sharing as he seeks a better way to fight hunger, inspire dignity and build stronger communities. “Poor people are not problems that need fixing. By putting ideas and hands to work, we fix approaches that are broken,” he said.

Giuliano remains unafraid to challenge certain notions that have gone unchallenged for generations.

In 2005, Giuliano introduced the Food for Friends program in Woodstock, Ont. The program sets out to eliminate the need for food banks, and instead replaces them with food cards participants use to purchase non-taxable items at local grocery stores, including fresh produce and meat. Funded through 25-cent donations by shoppers at participating grocery stores, every cent collected goes toward the cards.

This step allows people in need to “shop where everyone else does and buy what food works best for them and their families, just like regular people.”

Applauded on the floor of the House of Commons, Food for Friends, with no need for transportation, warehouses or dozens of people to sort food, is on the verge of being piloted across the country and around the world. “We’ve had interest from as far away as the U.K., France, Spain and Australia,” Giuliano said.

And then there is Bullwinkles Eatery and Culinary Training Centre in Woodstock and its challenge to soup kitchens.

On March 1, more than 100 people marked the opening of the new community pub-style eatery and culinary training centre as a joint creation of the Moose Family Centre, Salvation Army and Operation Sharing. At the eatery, patrons choose what they want from an all-you-can-eat buffet and pay what they can afford, with a minimum donation of 50 cents and a cap of $7. When they have money, people can purchase a $4 card guaranteeing them eight hot meals at Bullwinkles.

“We wanted people from all walks of life to eat together. Sharing a good meal side by side is a fundamental human pleasure that goes a long way in reducing isolation and perceptions of inequality,” Giuliano said.

Chef Vanessa Giuliano, head of family and community services at the Salvation Army and Stephen’s spouse, is the instructor of the culinary training program at Bullwinkles. All program participants, be they volunteers or those looking for training, can learn valuable culinary skills, from nutrition and food safety to preparation and hospitality.

Another program of Giuliano’s designed as a catalyst for change is the Creative Concept Training Centre, a six-day think tank tasked with exploring ways of breaking the cycle of poverty. Now in its third year, the program is open to anyone interested in supporting individuals defined as ‘impoverished.’ It is an accredited course for students pursuing their Master of Theology Studies or Divinity degree at Huron University College.

The program ends with team participants pitching their ideas on the last day to a four-member panel in the style of Dragon’s Den.

“Our ‘Angel’s Den,’ as we call it, has evaluated some promising ideas,” Giuliano said. “We don’t want any more soup kitchens or food banks. A paradigm shift needs out-of-the-box thinking.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of Alumni Gazette
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