Giving time to non-profit helps woman grow

Every day Ma Mawi “goes above and beyond” to strengthen community.

By Jessica Botelho-Urbanski for the Winnipeg Free Press. 

Paying it forward is one of the reasons Nicole Mercer volunteers at the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre’s community kitchen on McGregor Street.

She also wants to set a good example for the young ones in her life, including her three children, three stepchildren and four grandchildren.

 “I like just showing my kids that volunteering in your community is a really, really important part of growing. My self-esteem and everything like that just feels really good,” Mercer said.

Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata — which translates to “we all work together to help one another” from Ojibwa — helped Mercer’s family find their footing multiple times.

In 2005, when two of her children were taken into Children and Family Services’ care, Ma Mawi staff helped liaise with the government and the family to get them back after five months.

Ma Mawi also helped Mercer find housing, kick addictions and re-enrol in school to get her high school diploma, which she plans to finish next year.

When her five-year-old son died in 2010 after being struck by a car, Ma Mawi took care of the funeral arrangements. It still pitches in for flowers at his vigil every year, Mercer said.

“From there, we started coming around more often and my husband actually ended up working for (Ma Mawi). He got a job (doing building maintenance), which got me volunteering at this site,” she said.

While her husband moved on to another job, Mercer stuck around, volunteering four evenings per week.

She helps shop for the community kitchen and prepares meals for the youth drop-in program, which runs from 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

“We get $50 to feed anywhere from 30 to 100 kids. So you cook for 100, basically, so that they can have some seconds (if there are any),” Mercer said. “It’s supposed to be a snack, but we’ve managed to make it so that we can stretch the budget and actually give them a supper. We’ve learned how to make things that really go far.”

Perogies, kubasa and stir-fry are some of the perennial food favourites, she said.

Ma Mawi is the largest indigenous-led non-profit in the city, offering 50 programs at 11 sites and employing more than 200 staff and volunteers. United Way Winnipeg funds several of the programs at Ma Mawi, including the volunteer program Mercer takes part in.

Since she began volunteering regularly in 2012, Mercer said she’s felt herself grow as a person, while watching so many young people grow up around her.

“It just gives you a really, really good sense of community, especially working with the youth and just being able to see them grow,” she said. “(Ma Mawi) is really amazing and such a huge community support. Every single day, they go above and beyond what they have to do for people.”

If you would like to help, donate to United Way Winnipeg online at or by calling 204-477-UWAY (8929).