Traditional wisdom

When Manju Mandal left India for a new life in Canada, she brought with her a passion that inspires others to bridge the culture gap, too.

Never a dull moment

These days, Manju is a full-time early childhood educator in a different kind of classroom. At Sudbury’s Larch Street Kids Child Care Centre she’s in constant motion, encouraging eight preschoolers to put on their own snow pants, jackets, boots, mitts and scarves. Cheerful but firm, she has them suited up in a few minutes flat. Not a stray shoe or sock to be seen. “Super!” she tells her charges. “Look at our locker area—it’s so clean!”

“The parents are constantly complimenting her,” says supervisor Trudy Bridge. “She’s definitely in the right field.”

It’s demanding work; Manju’s on her feet all day. The evenings are just as busy. Tonight, Manju and Ramesh have a scant few minutes to eat before their volunteer work begins. Helping Hands of Sudbury began two years ago when Manju approached a neighbour with a simple idea: to cook a homemade meal and serve it to people in need. Quite simply, she opened the city phone book and started calling around until she hooked up with the Elgin Street Mission, which provides food and services to the inner city’s homeless population.

Ever since, on one Wednesday each month, a committed group of friends, neighbours and fellow prayer group members have been sharing the labour and the grocery bills to fix healthy meals for 100 people.

Outside, the wind chill is well below freezing but inside the mission, the temperature soars with body heat; it’s standing room only for dinner. Manju rushes from table to table, smiling as she sets down heaping plates of food. “Enjoy!” she says. “Looks good, huh?” Most of the diners are men and none are East Indian. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed.

“She’s so open,” says Bob Walsh, mission chaplain. “And people respond to people who are open and real. There’s no sense from Manju or the others of an us/them thing.”

By 9 p.m., two huge trays of lasagna have vanished and, with little waves of thanks, most of the diners have, too. It’s been 15 hours since Manju rose with her morning meditation. Yet she’s humming with positive energy and her smile is still huge. “You have such a good feeling when you do something like this,” she says. “You’re on a high.”

Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered a couple of times a week.