History of MCRS: Celebrating 30 Years

A chance meeting between Robert “Jack” Suderman and Luis Sandoval was the catalyst for the humble beginnings of the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support (MCRS).

Jack and Irene Suderman had just returned from a four year term in Bolivia with the Commission of Overseas Missions, which was under the auspices of the General Conference of Mennonites. Sandoval, who had recently arrived from El Salvador, was attending First Mennonite Church for the first time as were the Sudermans. He was a newly arrived refugee who required and depended on the assistance of others in this new land. This serendipitous and divinely ordained meeting led to much work with and for newly arriving refugees in the Kitchener-Waterloo (K-W) area for Suderman and others. First Mennonite Church established a Hispanic service, created host families for new refugees, and assisted them by supporting them with the legal processes, finding housing and jobs, language training, medical support and education for their children.

In the 1980s, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) initiated an advisory body called the Central American Resource Group in Action (CARGA) to bring awareness to North American Mennonites of the plight, suffering and wars that were occurring in Central America and the large number of Central American refugees arriving in the K-W area. Several members of CARGA (including Suderman) representing First Mennonite Church, Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, Breslau Mennonite Church, and Olive Branch Mennonite Church initiated a subcommittee that would seek to address the gaps that existed in the support network within the Region of Waterloo for those who were refugee claimants. They proposed the creation of a full-time position for someone who could deal with these issues. The position, its job description and the overseeing body was finalized on August 13, 1987.

In December 1987, three refugee support workers, Angelica Reyes, Theresa Troester, and Joel Klassen, were hired for a full-time equivalent position for the newly formed Mennonite Coalition to walk the complex path of resettlement with refugee claimants. Financial support came from the four Mennonite churches and MCC and the budget for the first year of operation was $25 000!

In 1989, Celza Bonilla, who had been working in a similar fashion under the auspices of Olive Branch Mennonite Church, was hired as a settlement and education worker for MCRS. In the same year, MCRS was provided office space and support from the Working Centre at 58 Queen St. in Kitchener.

Eunice Valenzuela, began as a part-time support worker in 1993. By the mid-1990’s MCRS began to assist refugee claimants arriving from other countries around the world. She was hired as the Executive Director of MCRS in 2002 when work to establish MCRS as a non-profit organization began. This goal was met in 2004, with the help and support of MCC. MCRS worked to create and establish the necessary organizational by-laws, mission statement, and policies that would guide them into the future. By 2007, MCRS became fully incorporated, a challenging process that took several years to fully materialize.

In May 2016, Shelley Campagnola was appointed Interim Director. Valenzuela moved to a new role to focus on her passion for community engagement and advocacy. Today MCRS has become more ecumenical, although there is still a large Mennonite support network to both MCRS as an organization, and to the people whom they serve. MCRS has continued to use their name (Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support) as a way to honour the Mennonite churches and community who saw a need and took action. The need for refugee support has not decreased with a steady flow of people seeking refuge from dozens of countries continuing to find their way to the welcome and help of MCRS.


“While every refugee’s story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage – the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.”

Guterres, Antonio UN High Commissioner for Refugees


MCRS Timeline

1980’s – Founding of the Central American Resource Group for Action (CARGA)

1987 – Subcommittee of CARGA creates the idea of a full time position to serve refugees in Kitchener Waterloo (K-W)

1987 – Formation of the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support (MCRS) in December with 3 part-time workers

1989 – Celza Bonilla is hired as settlement and education worker

1993 – Eunice Valenzuela begins as a part time support worker

2002 – Valenzuela becomes Executive Director

2004 – MCRS established as a non-profit organization

2007 – MCRS is fully incorporated

20­­­13 – MCRS moves to 43 Queen St. S. 2nd floor

2016 – Shelley Campagnola becomes Director

2017 – MCRS moves to its current location at 675 Queen Street South