‘Great man’ dedicated to helping vulnerable drowns while mentoring boy Main Street Project outreach manager Sean Sousa ‘had a heart of gold,’ grieving girlfriend says after fatal slip in Whiteshell rapids
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A Winnipeg man who drowned during an outing in the Whiteshell is being remembered for his dedication to helping vulnerable Manitobans and making the city a better place.
Sean Sousa, 33, disappeared in the Whiteshell River when he slid down falls at Pine Point Rapids and entered the deeper part of the water around 4 p.m. Tuesday.
His body was recovered at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Main Street Project outreach manager, who was well-known in Winnipeg’s core, was visiting the site with a boy he was mentoring, said his girlfriend, Beverley Smith.
“He had a heart of gold and he was always willing to help,” Smith, 30, said Friday. “He made such a big difference. He could see people for who they were.”
She said he gave the same commitment to his family and friends, and preferred to tell people “I love you” instead of saying “goodbye” when they parted ways.
The pair started dating about 18 months ago, after a friend convinced a reluctant Smith to create a profile on a dating website.
“He made such a big difference. He could see people for who they were.”– Beverley Smith
“I saw Sean and I could just tell. The thing that drew me to him were his kind, caring eyes,” she said. “Sean was the most loving, romantic, sweet man in the whole world.”
Sousa, who grew up in and still lived in Elmwood, was the manager of Main Street Project’s van outreach program.
In January, he spoke to the Free Press Community Review about his team’s efforts to help at-risk Winnipeggers, including people living in encampments and bus shelters, in extreme cold weather.
He was inspired to help others after overcoming challenges earlier in life, said Smith.
Away from work, Sousa loved cycling, hiking and generally being outdoors.
He incorporated some of his interests into his work as a mentor in an action therapy program for Indigenous youth.
Smith said Sousa visited Pine Point Rapids as part of his involvement in the program, noting he had been to the site, north of Betula Lake, multiple times in the past.
This year, the water is high and current and undertow are strong following severe spring flooding across Whiteshell Provincial Park in eastern Manitoba.
Smith said Sousa slipped and was pulled away by the current.
A few others nearby were taking part in water activities, police said.
Around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Smith called Sousa’s cellphone when he failed to return home at a stated time. The mother of the boy he was mentoring answered, and told her an RCMP officer would call her back.
Moments later, Smith received “the worst call of my life,” as the officer informed her Sousa was missing in the river.
“I just dropped to the floor and I was crying,” she said, adding she notified his family and friends.
Smith and some of Sousa’s friends drove to Pine Point Rapids, about 120 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg Wednesday while an RCMP dive team and provincial conservation and parks staff searched for him.
She tried to remain hopeful while they waited for updates in a parking lot.
Around 4 p.m., she said, a police officer emerged from a trail, which leads to the rapids, to tell them Sousa’s body had been found.
“It was the most devastating thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” said Smith. “I’m just so thankful he was found within 24 hours and he’s at peace and not alone anymore.”
Before joining Main Street Project, Sousa was a co-ordinator with the Gang Action Interagency Network and a manager with the West End 24 Hour Safe Space for youth.
He previously worked with the Elmwood Community Resource Centre and Downtown Community Safety Partnership.
Main Street Project and ECRC lit sacred fires for Sousa, with friends and colleagues gathering to mourn and share their memories of him.
“I’ve never met anyone like Sean before,” said Jamil Mahmood, executive director of Main Street Project. “He was super-passionate about helping people. He gave his heart to everyone and anyone he met.”
Sousa’s death has left a “big hole” at the community health centre.
“It’s been really hard,” said Mahmood. “Sean led by example and everyone looked up to him.”
Ryan Beardy, who worked with Sousa at GAIN, said his friend was a mentor to him.
“He’s one of the people who gave me a chance,” said Beardy, a youth mentor and justice advocate. “He impacted a lot of lives. I struggle to find the words to honour such a great man.”
Beardy said Sousa had a passion for building safer, stronger communities.
“He was an outstanding leader,” said Beardy. “He understood the underlying social factors of what plagues Winnipeg. He was dedicated to making Winnipeg better.”
Nina Condo, executive director of the Elmwood Community Resource Centre, said more than 30 people attended a vigil for Sousa Thursday night.
The attendees included youth he mentored when he was a manager with the organization’s after-school program.
“Sean had a big heart. He was a gem,” said Condo. “He had a gift of connecting with those youth who were underserved. He was a father figure for some.”
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.