Looking Back: Caribbean Workers Outreach Program


Building Bridges instead of Barriers

It started out with a simple list of errands for Barbara Somerwil one summer day in 1992. A vision check was not on her agenda but by the end of the day Barbara viewed life through a different lens.

That afternoon she had come across a fatal accident along a dangerous stretch of road in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The police were unable to identify the victim, a Caribbean seasonal farm worker.

The impact of that scene affected Barbara deeply and she called her pastor, Reverend Douglas Mitchell from Grace United Church for counsel. It motivated them to take a trip to visit St. James United Church in Simcoe to learn about the Caribbean Workers Outreach Project (CWOP), a program they had started to provide care for the social and spiritual needs of migrant farmworkers.

It inspired them to start a chapter of CWOP at Grace United Church in their hometown. The goal was simple: to build bridges between Jamaican farm workers and local residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Grace United Church partnered with Rev. Alan Barnes from the United Church in Jordan to bring up two pastors for Sunday night services in May and June, preaching on Sundays and visiting the farms on week nights.

They began annual domino tournaments attended with great enthusiasm every May. Highly competitive cricket matches were organized every June, well attended by both locals and their neighbours on the farms.

In addition, St. Andrews United Church in Niagara Falls hosted an annual dinner where several hundred farm workers and parishioners enjoyed a mix of Canadian and Caribbean dishes followed by lively music and a message.

I was invited to help with the music in May of 2005. At a meeting with Niagara area CWOP members a few months later, I was introduced to people who would prove to be a major influence in my life.

MaryAnne Schlabach reunited with a dear friend on one of her many trips to Jamaica. 2014.

That night I met MaryAnne Schlabach, who continues to inspire all who meet her.  A recipient of the Rotary Club’s Paul Harris award for her 50 plus years of serving, she still eagerly awaits the return of her friends every spring. There is likely someone in every town in Jamaica who knows “sister” MaryAnne!

Another member, Anneliese Pankratz, had been friends with seasonal farm workers for many years and was well equipped to volunteer with CWOP. She knew the location of all the farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake, having driven most of the employers to school during her 35 plus years of driving a school bus. When her husband Henry was unable to drive Sunday nights for CWOP, she took over the task. She also turned their former apple barn into a “free shop” for farm workers. Through her volunteer work at the MCC Christian Benefit Shop she was able to find jeans, hoodies, and shirts which she then supplied to men working on farms in her neighbourhood.


Anneliese Pankratz with her friends Evral, Dwayne and Daniel.

A third member, Nancy Howse, began making friends with Caribbean workers in 1987 when she worked as a cashier at MB Foods in Virgil. Nancy would invite them to join her and her late husband, alderman Bob Howse, to church on Sundays with lunch after. Excursions to Niagara Falls, Toronto, and local events lead to treasured friendships and enabled them to bring valuable insight to the CWOP team.

When I began assisting with the church services in 2005, CWOP was a dynamic group of dedicated people who provided social and spiritual support. On a more personal level, many of them assisted in practical ways such as driving workers to doctor or dentist appointments, inviting them over for backyard barbecues, or Sunday afternoon outings to Niagara Falls.

The lively Sunday night services were the highlight of the week, not only for our Caribbean friends but for us locals as well!       The great success of CWOP was determined in large part by the incredible participation and support of not only the United Church but by the whole community. Volunteers came from various backgrounds: believers and unbelievers, retired farmers, teachers, musicians, and retirees from many professions that brought exceptional experience.

CWOP member Carol Miller and her friends could be found at garage sales on Saturdays, always on the hunt for warm clothing, suitcases, household items and toys for the men to bring back to their children. Retired farmers and local tradesmen assisted men searching for tools and equipment to ship home in crates and barrels at the end of the season.

Helmut Boldt first made friends with seasonal workers when he owned a small farm and then joined up with CWOP shortly after it began in 1992. The cricket trophy was named the Helmut Boldt Award in honour of his dedication and devoted friendships that spanned 14 years.

Some of the CWOP members made trips to Jamaica to visit their friends, staying in their homes, visiting their churches and schools. Enthusiastic reports and photos from MaryAnn, Nancy, Trudy Enns, Carol, `Vic and Hertha Boese inspired more locals to travel the back roads of Jamaica to visit friends and their families.

The first 25 years of CWOP were groundbreaking in many ways, bridging cross cultural barriers that encouraged dignity and respect.

It’s Black history month – a good time to reflect on how we have chosen to welcome our neighbours. The experience of farm workers in Niagara is also a reflection of our local history for the past six decades. It was a tragedy that opened Barbara’s eyes to the possibilities of a caring community 31 years ago. May we learn from those who have shared their vision, built bridges instead of barriers, and shone a light on the path to move forward together as neighbours.