Mike Paonessa brings hope inside and outside schools as a Christian leader

After a hard day when others might be tempted just to collapse on the couch, Mike Paonessa does something radically different to recharge his batteries: he serves others.

Paonessa might drive around the inner city with drinks and snacks to offer anyone who looks as though they might be in need. Or he might be found at the Edmonton Remand Centre, praying the rosary with inmates or making sure they get a chocolate bar at Christmas.

He fits these acts of kindness around a busy schedule as a devoted family man and deputy superintendent at Evergreen Catholic Schools. A living example of servant leadership, he has now been honoured by Newman Theological College with the Kevin Carr Award for Christian Leadership

The award, named after the college’s first lay president, was presented to Paonessa at a luncheon on Oct. 24, before an audience that included proud family, friends and many colleagues in Catholic education. In his acceptance speech, he explained that for the Christian, service is its own reward.

“Even on the most difficult of days, at the end of a really long day when I really don’t feel like adding another task to my plate, every opportunity to be kind, compassionate or caring has provided me strength and nourishment, and feeling more energized and refreshed than I was before engaging in that particular activity,” he said. “That’s the payback for me.”

Paonessa believes in building and nurturing strong, positive relationships.

“It’s part of who I am,” he said. “I believe it’s important to build those relationships not only with those with whom we interact on a daily basis, but also with those who are marginalized and at risk in our world. One way to foster and build these relationships is through service.

“Serving and supporting others does not require extreme or strenuous work. More frequently it takes the quiet and more powerful form of listening, demonstrating empathy, understanding, awareness, guiding, and building community.”

Paonessa said he is grateful for what he learns from those he serves. When he doesn’t have enough food to hand out to the needy in the inner city, they simply share amongst each other to make sure everyone gets something to eat.

“The poor can teach us much about humility and trust in God.”

Mike Paonessa is presented with the Kevin Carr Award for Christian Leadership by Newman Theological College chancellor Justice Kevin Feehan, left, and the award's namesake, Kevin Carr.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

From inmates at the remand centre, he learned that his service has nothing to do with his past experiences or achievements.

“They don’t know anything about me, and I don’t know their story either. We face each other as equals, and they see me as someone who desires to spend time with them without judgment. To them, I am nothing more than my gift of time, compassion, faith and words of hope.

“By supporting and meeting with them in their environments, I hope they begin to see me as the face of hope.”

Cindi Vaselenak, the superintendent of Evergreen Catholic Schools, admitted she bent the rules on the award nomination by not telling her colleague she was nominating him. He had a long list of accomplishments just in Catholic education, but she knew he wasn’t big on recognition for himself.

“Some of us put our professional face on, and we’re going to do our job, but it’s exhausting, we can’t always carry it. In education we always have to give and solve. Mike continues that. And who he is in the schools is not different from who he is outside the schools. That’s the essence of what this award is getting at. That’s true Christian leadership.”

She said Paonessa often quotes from Pope St. John Paul II, saying “You might be the only Scripture that people around you read.”

“And in the face of those who are lost, in despair, marginalized, not connected to the Church, Mike is the guy who will be the voice of Scripture and the face of Christ.”

Paonessa said he was humbled and honoured by the Carr Award. He encouraged his audience to do their bit, no matter how small, to change the world.

“And to quote Dr. Seuss, ‘To the world you may be one person; but to one person you may be the world’,” he said. “My experience has confirmed to me that we provide a little hope with every gesture of love we offer.”