Eric Bencina doesn’t normally spend his Wednesdays on scaffolding putting siding on a house.

But last week, he joined 124 of his OpenText colleagues on a week-long Habitat for Humanity (Habitat) build, the first of its kind for the tech industry in Waterloo Region.

Nic Heldmann, VP, Accounting Services at OpenText, volunteers some of his time helping the company’s Waterloo-based employees – 900 out of a global workforce of 9,000 – connect with each other and their community. He organized the Habitat build based on results of a staff survey this past winter.

“We hit a nerve with the team when we asked, ‘What do you want to do?’” Heldmann said, adding that 225 employees said they were interested in participating in a mass volunteer project that would impact Waterloo Region.

“The staff said they don’t recognize people in the hallways [as the OpenText office has expanded rapidly], and they wanted an opportunity to get to know each other,” he said.

And they wanted to do more than have a staff retreat or a night of fun.

The OpenText team chose to support Habitat, whose main goal is to provide home ownership to families. The program is proven to help at-risk youth halt the cycle of poverty and poor health, and build confidence in school and life.

The Habitat campaign officially kicked off on April 16. Volunteers had to apply to participate. Every day during the build (May 4-8) saw a different group of 25 OpenText staff show up for a day’s work at the build site at 243 Kehl St. in Kitchener.

The 125 volunteers were also tasked with fundraising for Habitat. The original goal was $10,000, but OpenText staff raised more than $15,000, which the software company will match. The money will go directly toward construction expenses. It costs Habitat about $110,000 per unit built.

The current build site is extensive. The lot will eventually hold 45 townhouses and a private playground. The first 11 units are slated to be complete by Aug. 31. While volunteers like the OpenText team donate most of the labour, the homeowners also put in 250 hours, per adult in the family, of “sweat equity,” said Jerry Lawlor, Director of Development for Habitat.

“This is the largest [Habitat] site ever in K-W,” Lawlor said. “We started working here in 2013 and will be here until 2019-2020, depending on donations and volunteers.

“OpenText is making the largest impact by a tech company [in Waterloo Region] ever. This is huge for us. Not just the money, but the relationships. The traction we gain is what this is about.”

Lawlor noted that some OpenText teammates who spent a day on the site have already enrolled to become regular Habitat volunteers moving forward.

For Bencina, VP, Program Management Office, Office of the President & CEO, the time and money he’s putting towards the Habitat build site was more than just a day out of the office.

“We’re a big company headquartered here,” he said. “We owe some of our success to our community. It’s important to make a difference.”

Bencina has found the work satisfying. He notes that most of his teammates are local to the area. Helping out the community you live in just makes sense, he said.

Bencina and Heldmann both hope that the OpenText week become an annual event for the company, as well as a wake-up for other large tech companies in the region. Bencina specifically hopes the week is seen as a challenge to D2L, Google and BlackBerry.

“Not everyone is as fortunate as us who work at these companies,” he said. “We have well-paying jobs and a lot of opportunities. It’s important to give back.”


Looking for ways to get involved? I see and hear . . . This Thursday, May 14, Social Venture Partners Waterloo Region is hosting a film screening and director Q&A of I AM ELEVEN, a documentary about childhood around the world. The screening is happening at the newly renovated Apollo Cinema, 141 Ontario St. N. in Kitchener. Tickets are $50 for adults and $20 for youth. The ticket price includes refreshments and a tax receipt. The evening kicks of at 6:45 p.m. . . .Next Thursday, May 21, some members of the Waterloo Region tech community, including staff from D2L, Axonify and Plasticity Labs, are hosting a soiree to benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters Waterloo Region. The evening begins at 7 p.m. at an estate at 1322 Sawmill Road, Bloomingdale. The $70 ticket includes an open bar provided by Block 3 Brewing, plus food and a cooking demo by The Boathouse. There will also be live music, a silent auction and great company . . . If you need more music in your life, why don’t you register to spend next weekend, May 22-24, at Hack the Orchestra. The first hackathon of its kind in Canada, Hack the Orchestra will combine the tech industry with the music industry for an innovation-filled weekend at the Centre in the Square, 101 Queen St. N. in Kitchener. The free event features a live symphony performance, one-on-ones with technical and musical mentors and the opportunity to create a new direction for the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

Photo: Eric Bencina up on scaffolding getting ready to install siding into an almost built row of Habitat townhouses.