Cyndy Friesen has always felt empathy for others, but a defining decade in her life provided the inspiration that prompted her to make a habit of giving back.
Friesen is one of 150 Manitobans to be honoured for giving back to their community as part of the Honour 150 Awards, announced Wednesday.
"When I was in my 30s, I survived three different life-threatening illnesses that prompted me to reevaluate my life goals and priorities, and that only increased my drive and passion to reach out and serve others," she explained.
Friesen has a powerful resume of giving back to the community. Since 2015 she has donated her time as a board member on Agape House, a crisis centre for women and children experiencing family violence.
She’s also volunteered for many other organizations including the MS Society, Diabetes Canada, Steinbach Community Christmas, arranging local Terry Fox Runs and the Canadian Cancer Society Relay for Life, and other initiatives.
She donates time to Steinbach’s soup kitchen, Soup’s On, and is drawn to causes that advocate for social justice issues such as poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, domestic violence, addictions and human trafficking.
"My mother recently shared with me that even as a child I showed concerns for my classmates who were marginalized and vulnerable, so I guess these concerns I had as a youngster has just continued with me in my whole life," she said.
Friesen said she was honoured to receive the award, but said she’s not the only one who gives back in this way. "It’s quite humbling because there are so many people who offer their time and service volunteering in their communities," she said.
Her work with Agape House is important to her. "That’s one of the things near and dear to my heart but it’s also something that is not spoken about," she said. "People like to ignore this topic. I think it’s important to bring awareness."
A former school trustee, Friesen said she’s seen the effects of domestic violence on students.
Her work with other organizations comes from a variety of experiences.
She began volunteering with the MS Society after her uncle passed away at 33 from the disease. Her own experience with cancer led to work on related causes. After recovering from cancer she co-chaired the Relay for Life for eight years, helping the organization raise $1 million, some of which was used locally to support a drivers program that allowed people to get compensated for bringing cancer patients to Winnipeg for treatment.
"That was a fabulous eight years because I connected with so many survivors and we encouraged each other, and then of course we also remember the ones that didn’t make it, who passed away from cancer," she said.
She has friends with diabetes, prompting her to get involved.
"When it affects you or someone that you know, you tend to get more involved," she said.
Friesen stepped up her work with Soup’s On, after COVID lessened the number of senior volunteers available, and works two days a week helping with food preparation, serving and assisting the soup kitchen’s guests.
"That’s been amazing because I’ve really gotten to know the guests that come and I’ve made some great friendships," she said.
In fact, that’s the story from all her volunteering efforts. While it’s great to give back, Friesen admits she gets something wonderful in return.
"That’s one of the beauties of volunteering," she said. "It gives you the opportunity to meet all sorts of wonderful people from all different walks of life. I just feel blessed and thankful that I have the opportunity to do this."
"You feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives and you’re bringing hope and joy and peace," she added. "I encourage people to volunteer. It’s the best thing you can do."
Friesen said she wants to be a voice for the voiceless, and be a part of creating a safe and welcoming community.
"I also believe that a true measure of any community is determined on how it treats its most vulnerable members," she said. "My focus is to treat all community members that I serve with passion, respect and in a nonjudgmental way."