Interview with Sister Lesley Sacouman, Executive Coordinator
English Online had the privilege of chatting recently with Sister Lesley Sacouman, founder and Executive Coordinator of Holy Names House of Peace. Aside from heading House of Peace, Sister Lesley has been linked with another Winnipeg institution – Rossbrook House – a safe place for children and youth which she co-founded with Sister Geraldine MacNamara, an Order of Canada awardee. Their mission, “No child who does not want to be alone should ever have to be” has powered Rossbrook House for more than 40 years now. Similarly, Sister Lesley has been doing this for newcomer women who need a safe haven when she opened House of Peace in 2004.
House of Peace is actually open to anyone who needs a safe place in the city. It hosts programs such as Cocaine Anonymous, Al- Anon, Eritrean Youth Group, workshops and cultural events, and many others. Most notable among these programs is Neighbours which provides a warm and engaging home for newcomer women who need support in their transition. The centre houses 18 women from diverse cultures and backgrounds on any given day. They may stay for up to two years during which they receive support for healing and settlement.
Because of her exemplary community work and positive influence on the lives of countless individuals, Sister Lesley has received recognition from various organizations and government agencies. In 2017, she received the Distinguished Alumni Award for Community Service from the University of Manitoba:
Here is the transcript of our interview with Sister Lesley:
English Online (EO): How did you arrive at the idea of founding House of Peace?
Sister Lesley (SL): One day I went to New York City and lived in a shelter for two months. I did this because after thirty years of working at Rossbrook, your heart gets hardened because of the experiences you go through. The first time you see a kid crying after being beaten up you just break down. The second time you still break down. The hundredth time you lose sensitivity and that is not healthy. So I went and lived in a shelter to keep my heart subtle and alive.
I loved that experience and the people in New York, but the shelter was filthy: there were rats, mice, cockroaches. It was terrible. So when I came back from that, I knew I wanted to live with people, not just work with them. I did not know when it would happen and how. When this building became available, a friend of our community bought the building for us and rented it out at a very low price. That’s how we started. We started with no money. We did not know what to do, but we knew that this is where we needed to be. Then it grew and the donations continued growing. House of Peace is alive because it is owned by the people, it is their idea, it is their home – it is ours. That is what makes it strong.
“I don’t think any of us heal in chaos and filth. And so I wanted a home for them that would be beautiful. Just to sit in our living room, in this beautiful room, it’s healing in itself. It’s peaceful. And that’s the atmosphere our women need, especially our immigrant and refugee women who have left all their homes and families and are hurting deeply inside.” – Sister Lesley
EO: Who are eligible to receive your services?
SL: Anybody who is eighteen and over. We are only women here. There are no children. Many of the women who are here have children but they’re not here. We receive newcomer women – as long as you’re new to the city – you are a newcomer. We’ve had some indigenous women live here. Normally though, they are newcomers from other countries.
EO: Do they need to be referred by an agency?
SL: They could be referred by organizations like Family Dynamics, Welcome Place, IRCOM, NorWest or by word of mouth. Some women just heard about us and just dropped in.
EO: In your experience, which services are in demand for such women?
SL: When they come, their most important need is a safe place to stay. They need a home, a place where they can heal, where they have time to relax and decide what they need. So this is their home – the extended family home.
During this period, they may have other needs. We have twenty-seven tutors on hand and they’re all volunteers. We have music lessons, cooking lessons, or yoga lessons. There are many things they can participate in but don’t have to. The most important thing is that women who need a safe home have it.
EO: I read on your website that you have a scholarship program. Could you please tell me more about it?
SL: It is for past neighbors or present neighbors (note: Women who are and who have been House of Peace residents are called “neighbours”). This scholarship will begin this year. It covers up to three years of study and is made possible through our donor. Carol Lynne Johnson died three years ago after suffering a brain tumor. Her husband Eric, an active member of the House of Peace family, set up a scholarship in her honour and in an effort to make education more accessible to newcomer women. It would be great to have more donors for this type of scholarship as we have many neighbours who are interested in accessing education.
EO: Do you monitor past neighbours?
SL: They do come and visit us. For example, there is a neighbour who comes for English lessons, her tutor meets her here. Also, our neighbours and former neighbours would usually come to the Welcome Home Dinner at the Convention Centre which we hold in the fall. They would drop by if ever they have something new going on in their lives. Some still come for help, like when they have apartment papers to sign with the landlord and they do not understand the contract. We are invited for graduations. We also keep in touch. For example, I get a phone call from a Muslim lady every year on Christmas. Just for her to remember Christmas, I just think it’s really nice.
We used to gather once a year but it doesn’t really work. It is better to do it spontaneously. They come as they make friends here. They help each other and share news. I think, this is what we are going to do at the Welcome Home Dinner this year. Usually, one of them talks about a personal experience and it is really powerful (it has been broadcasted on radio). This year, we will have a few neighbors come and speak. For example, one of them got a PhD in engineering last June. But they could share all kinds of successes. There could be someone who could not speak English and improved, someone could have become happily married, or had a child. We’ll do that hopefully at our Dinner this year.
EO: Do you have a message/advice for newcomers who may need more settlement support?
SL: My constant is “You are an amazing woman just by the fact you’ve made it here today. Believe in yourself as you are already a strong woman. Trust that and share your dreams so we could help you move forward.”
(Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity)
Holy Names House of Peace
211 Edmonton St. Winnipeg, MB.
Telephone: (204) 942 -5535
Operating hours: Mon-Fri: 7:00 am – 6:00 pm; Sat: 8:00 am – 2:00 pm
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