Never saying no, for all the right reasons

Governor General David Johnston presents Sister Lesley Sacouman with a Caring Canadian Award.
Photo by Sgt. Ronald Duchesne.

It’s hard to say no to Sister Lesley Sacouman.

“People often tease Sister about how difficult it is to say ‘no’ to her – and truthfully, in meeting and conversing with her, neither the word nor the thought seem to fit in the mind or the mouth or the spirit,” says long-time friend and colleague Susan Millican. “Sister Lesley makes people feel so good about themselves, so important and included, all they want to say is ‘Yes, please count me in – what can I do?'”

Millican, along with Phil Chiappetta, Brenda Evans and Cathy Auld, recently nominated Sister Lesley for a Caring Canadian Award. Created by the Governor General in 1995, these awards recognize individuals who volunteer their time to help others, building a smarter and more caring nation.

Sister Lesley was given the award by the Gov. Gen. David Johnston at a ceremony in June.  Sister Lesley attributes the award to her friends and colleagues.

“There are so many outstanding smart and caring people here in Winnipeg. In winning the award, to me I was representing all those people. I didn’t take it so personally.”

There’s a reason it’s next to impossible to say no to Sister Lesley.

“What we all realize in our more reflective moments is that we are not answering the call to Sister Lesley – she has awakened the call we feel deep down inside,” Chiappetta explains. “Sister Lesley helps us to move beyond the clutter and business of life to attach us to its essence – love and caring for each other.”

Given this wonderful spirit she inspires and her ceaseless energy and caring nature, it’s no surprise that Sister Lesley has inspired Winnipeggers for 40 years and chalked up an impressive list of achievements.

“She embodies an attractive spirit of being fearless, welcoming, good humoured and smart, harnessed into a life of unpaid service for all,” Auld says. “She sees the world through the eyes of others, grounded in her early education as a teacher.”

Sister Lesley was Chiappetta’s junior high school teacher in the 1970s at St. John Brebeuf School.

“She planted seeds in her students and I was able to see them grow inside myself despite the self-centeredness of that period of life,” he says. “Those seeds were about caring and compassion for those who suffered. Those seeds were concerned with justice for the oppressed.”

In the mid-1970s Sister Lesley, along with Sister Geraldine MacNamara and a group of neighbourhood youth, founded Rossbrook House, a drop-in centre located in Winnipeg’s inner-city.

“It was a refuge from the negative environment of the streets and it became the model for how Sister Lesley approached her caring for others. She always followed the lead of the youth she encountered – their needs, their dreams,” says Chiappetta, who today is the co-executive director of Rossbrook House.

Soon after, Sister Lesley founded Eagles’ Circle, an alternative junior high school program held at Rossbrook House.

In 1998 she founded Esther House, a second stage home for women in addictions recovery.

In 2002, taking her version of a sabbatical, Sister Lesley went to live in a New York shelter.

“She brought this life-changing experience back to Winnipeg, sharing a dream with others of creating a transitional shelter for women from different countries, circumstances and faiths,” Auld says.

In 2004 she opened Holy Names House of Peace, and in 2010 the facility was expanded to include two more floors and a dozen new rooms. Sister Lesley lives in House of Peace and acts as executive director.

The recently announced Marie Rose Place will offer 40-units for refugee and immigrant single moms and their children. The $9 million project, slated for completion in July 2014, will be located next door to – and operated by – House of Peace.

Sister Lesley has also been a member of The Winnipeg Foundation board since 2001. She chairs the Grants Committee and is a continuous supporter of Youth in Philanthropy, a program that allows high school students to explore values, learn about community organizations and make funding recommendations.

How does she get the energy?

“I get back as much as I receive and that’s where my energy comes from,” Sister Lesley says. “I am so privileged to have grown up amongst so many people who have increased my world vision of humanity. I love and am loved; one feeds the other.”

Click here for more information about the Caring Canadian Awards.

This is part of a series on the recent Caring Canadian Award winners from Winnipeg. Click here to read about other recipients.

Stacy Cardigan Smith

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Communications Specialist with The Winnipeg Foundation, Community News Commons Editor, mom of two, health enthusiast, West End resident, cat lover and generally cheery gal.
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