Man with a Mission
Thursday, 17 September 2009 04:16
Written by David Schmeichel
Some might call it a mid-life crisis; others, professional suicide.
But local bright light Sherwood Armbruster–who recently stepped down as chief of staff for the City of Winnipeg, in order to take a far less showy (and let’s face it, far less lucrative) post as chief operating officer for inner city charitable organization Siloam Mission–insists the somewhat unorthodox career move is just another step in his life’s journey.
“I really don’t feel like there’s anything special about me,” says Armbruster, the 34-year-old Glen Elm resident whose decision to forsake politics for philanthropy has left insiders baffled and
“In fact, in a small way, I feel like I’m representative of a lot of people in our generation and the emerging generation who want to live their life for something of more lasting value than just the bottom line, or the paycheque or prestige.”
After serving five years at city hall–the last two and a half as Mayor Sam Katz’s right hand man–Armbruster joins the Siloam Mission staff at the same time as Larry Updike, the longtime radio broadcaster who’s hanging up his headphones to become the shelter’s new senior spokesman.
The dual appointments dovetail with news that Siloam–which already provides food, shelter, clothing and counseling to the city’s less fortunate–will soon expand the scope of its mission work through stronger partnerships with government and other non-profit agencies, and by exploring new opportunities like transitional housing.
But for Armbruster–who’s spent most of his life balancing his twin passions of politics and public service–the move is motivated by personal values, not grandiose expansion plans. “I don’t want to wait until the end of my life to decide I’m going to make a difference,” says Armbruster, a married father-of-three who sees being a good family man as his highest calling. “If I look at trying to find the intersection of my dreams and hopes for my life and my kids’ lives, and the opportunities that are there, and the greatest needs in our society, then this (new position) was right at the centre.”
With typical modesty, Armbruster credits his compassionate nature to his parents, Roger and Marge, who instilled in him and his three sisters the knowledge that it’s better to focus on relationships than on finances.
Born in Edmonton and raised in smalltown Saskatchewan (the family moved to Winnipeg in 1986), Armbruster figures his parents never made more than $6,000 a year working with churches, indigenous communities and prison populations. But through their example, he learned the importance of always placing people before material gains.
“They didn’t pay for my education, they didn’t buy me a car when I turned 18, and there isn’t a golden nest egg waiting for me when they pass away,” he explains. “But where they’ve invested in relationships and invested in people, I feel like I’ve received my inheritance 10 times over as a result of the life they’ve led.”
While Armbruster describes his father as being supportive of his every move, he wasn’t exactly thrilled when his son decided (at the age of 14) to immerse himself in politics.
He earned a degree in political studies from the University of Manitoba, then worked for the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources from 1994 to 1997, but found that what had by then become a “love/hate relationship” was skewing towards the latter half more and more.
“To this day, (politics) is 100 per cent relationships–you’re involved at a level where you can change things fundamentally and improve them,” he says. “The part I hate is the zero-sum game it often ends up becoming. Instead of being viewed as an opportunity to build bridges, there are those who view it as brinkmanship or the art of war.”
Having taken some time off to earn a law degree (and to do some humanitarian work overseas), Armbruster opted to close the door on his political career for good, swapping his provincial post for a job working with at-risk teenagers at Macdonald Youth Services.
He spent the next five years as a youth care worker, eschewing promotions for front line work, but was ready to revisit the issue by 2004, when a friend who’d worked on Katz’s mayoral campaign offered him a job as deputy chief of staff.
Though he at first turned down the offer, his wife Jocelyn convinced him to reconsider, and he quickly found himself “up to his eyeballs” in politics, providing policy advice, steering strategic planning sessions, and advising the mayor on everything from his political team to his public correspondence.
He says he was attracted by the opportunity to work for a nonpartisan public servant, and describes his time with Katz as the “most incredible experience of my life.”
“He’s a really honourable man, and as a gatekeeper for the city, right from Day One I’ve seen so many quiet acts of generosity on his part,” says Armbruster.
“Even on days where it would have been easy for him to take his stress out on the people around him, he was only kinder and more caring … I feel like he’s been a mentor to me, and I don’t leave that lightly, because I know that’s a rare gift in life, to work with someone who’s not just a mentor, but a friend.”
For his part, Katz is similarly effusive in his praise, describing Armbruster as a “one of a kind” employee and friend, whom he feels fortunate to have known and to have worked alongside.
“He is bright, he is passionate, and he is unbelievably caring of his fellow human beings,” says Katz. “In my humble opinion, he’s got a lot more character than I do … in fact, I think Sherwood could teach everybody what’s truly important in life.”
So what was it that prompted Armbruster to give up all that job security and satisfaction, for the far riskier realm of street level charity work? It certainly wasn’t the money. Though he declines to go into detail, he concedes his salary drop will be “in the tens of thousands,” noting again he’s not the first person to choose fulfillment over financial compensation.
Religion played a part–Armbruster is well-versed in scripture, attends the Winnipeg Centre Vineyard Christian Fellowship, and believes, “You’d more likely find Jesus today at a place like Siloam Mission or walking down Main Street than you would a traditional church.”–but only to a point.
Even more compelling than his spiritual beliefs, is Armbruster’s desire to live up to the example set by his parents, to match the selflessness of his wife, Jocelyn, and to leave a lasting legacy for his three sons: Isaiah, 6, four-year-old Luke (who was born with Arthrogryposis, a form of muscular dystrophy), and Elijah, whose first birthday was last month.
“I have a responsibility to my sons, not just to cultivate a security and a sense of values, but to provide a role model and an example,” he says. “To let them know that their mom and dad aren’t perfect, and we’ve made a lot of mistakes along the journey, but that hopefully this will be a decision where I can look them in the eye and say, ‘Here’s an example of where our decisions matched up with our values and beliefs. Here’s an example where we made a decision not because it made sense to our bank account–that didn’t, in fact, make any sense to our bank account–but because there are far more important things to live for.”
photography by Grajewski Fotograph Inc.