Her younger years were marked by some serious ups and downs — including experiences with poverty and the child welfare system — so it’s no surprise Judy Richichi was at first wary of working with some of Winnipeg’s most marginalized residents.
But the Red River College grad has for years been doing just that — helping to enrich and improve the lives of those currently experiencing homelessness, first as an accountant and more recently as Director of Resource Development for inner city shelter Siloam Mission.
“To be honest, when you go through something like that, the last thing you want to do is to come back to it,” says Richichi, a mother of four who graduated from RRC’s Business Administration program in 1985.
“But having been a product of the system, I knew that change can happen. I know you don’t have to be stuck in that situation. We as a society tend to stereotype and say, ‘They’re never going to change.’ I and seven brothers and sisters can attest that is wrong. If you give people a hand up and help them out, then change can happen.”
One of eight siblings who grew up in Ohio and Florida, Richichi spent time in and out of foster homes and group homes before her dad and new step-mom were able to move her — and half of her brothers and sisters — to Winnipeg in the late 1970s.
Though her parents were able to keep the younger children together, money was always tight, and Richichi and her siblings had to pay for their own post-secondary educations. Having excelled at math and accounting courses in high school, Richichi opted to pursue a Business Administration diploma at RRC, impressed by the College’s reputation for providing a quality, career-focused education that wouldn’t involve decades of student debt.
“It had a really good reputation, even at that time, for practical experience as opposed to book knowledge,” says Richichi. “Sure enough, after taking (the course) for two years, I felt totally prepared for whatever came my way.”
Richichi’s first post-RCC positions — working as an accountant for Japan Audio, and later Air Canada — gave her plenty of opportunity to prove her financial prowess, and the skills she’d acquired in school came in handy when she took time off in the late 1980s to start a family. She supplemented her income by preparing financial statements and tax returns on a freelance basis for years, and later by working as an educational assistant (teaching math classes, of course) when her children were in middle school.
Richichi returned to accounting about 10 years ago, working first for a local law office, then a travel agency. Though the landscape had changed somewhat, she had little trouble mastering the computerized systems that became industry standard in her absence.
“If you understand the fundamentals of accounting, which you learn really well in Business Administration, you can apply that to pretty much anything and still be successful,” she says.
In 2007, Richichi signed on for an accounting job with Siloam Mission — a position she held until last year when she became Director of Resource Development. Despite her initial trepidation, she now describes the work as the most fulfilling of her career, calling the downtown shelter “one of Winnipeg’s best-kept secrets.”
“Siloam itself is really well known, but people don’t know us nearly as well as they think they do,” says Richici, shown at left with CBC sportscaster (and longtime Siloam volunteer) Scott Oake. “When people come in for tours — when they see what we’re actually doing here, and the vision for the future — they’re shocked at what their money is doing to help this city.”
She’s especially excited about recent initiatives and expansion plans that will drastically enhance programming for Siloam’s patrons, including gym, library and computer lab space at the downtown site on Princess Street (which already provides meals, shelters, clothing, medical and dental services, among countless others), and a newly-purchased apartment block in Wolseley that will soon provide 87 units of affordable, dry and supportive housing.
Richichi’s enthusiasm — for both Siloam and for RRC’s Business Administration program — is evidently shared by her children. Both of her eldest boys — 22-year old Raf and 20-year-old David — are recent graduates of the same program, and while both boys are still pursuing industry-specific jobs, Raf currently pulls double-duty working for both Siloam and the Salvation Army.
Not surprisingly, Raf plans to work in the non-profit sector like his mother (after first topping up his credentials at the University of Manitoba), while David has expressed interest in securities and investments. Even 18-year-old Michael and 15-year-old Angelina are being groomed as future RRC alumni — and fellow Business Administration grads, if Richichi has her way.
“Even if they want to do a trade, which I’m all for … I’d like them to have their own business,” she explains. “Doing a two-year trades course and a two-year business course affords them the ability to learn a trade and to own their own business, as opposed to just working for someone else for the rest of their lives.”
Most importantly, Richichi hopes her kids share her passion for helping others, and for serving as compassionate stewards of change in the lives of those less fortunate.
“We can stare at them and say, ‘Too bad,’ or we can say, ‘You know what? There are better things in store for you — just around the corner,'” she says.
“There’s a better thing in store for every person — we just need someone to help us tap into it, and to encourage us that it’s out there.”
Shown above: Judy Richichi, with sons Raf, left, and David, right. All three are graduates of RRC’s Business Administration program.