A culture of giving: Steinbach, Man., recognized for leading the country in generosity
Southeastern Manitoba city exceeds national average for charitable donations relative to income
Devin Edmiston was in the penalty box of the outdoor rink for too long. He had been sleeping there for the past several nights and knew if huddling for warmth in a sin bin was the best shelter he could find, he could no longer handle life on his own.
"There was something inside me, told me, 'You need to try and find someone to help you,'" Edmiston said, while taking a break from playing piano in a Steinbach, Man., drop-in centre that's become his safe haven.
He had spent a few years without steady housing.
"It's hard a lot of the time when you try to get help, your hand is pushed away and nobody gives you that chance. And [Steinbach Community] Outreach actually gave me that chance."
He found help in what data suggests might be the most generous city in all of Canada.
In less than two months, Edmiston went from sleeping in a penalty box at the city's outdoor rink this winter to living in an apartment and volunteering for Steinbach Community Outreach, the same organization that helped turn his life around.
"It felt like God gave me the purpose and brought me through these doors to help," he said.
His story embodies what people in Steinbach, a city of roughly 18,000 people, say is a culture of giving.
Generosity is impossible to quantify. No organization keeps track of how often somebody volunteers or offers their friend a ride, but a telling sign of charitableness is the donations claimed on residents' taxes.
People in Steinbach donate 4.31 per cent of their income to charity, which far exceeds the national average of 0.62 per cent, according to an analysis of tax filing data by Charitable Impact. The only city that ranks anywhere close is Winkler, also in southeastern Manitoba, where an average of 3.3 per cent of people's incomes is donated to registered charities.
Steinbach is also the country's standout for the highest median donation — $2,270 — in 2021 among metropolitan areas with at least 10,000 citizens, Statistics Canada said.
Statistics boasting of Steinbach's generosity don't surprise Edmiston. Every day, he sees people making donations of food, clothing and toiletries to Steinbach Community Outreach, which helps those living without shelter, or at risk of becoming homeless, meet their basic needs.
Community service starts early
Madeleine Thiessen, a client advocate at the non-profit that's also a daytime drop-in centre, said residents step up in numerous ways.
She remembers needing a second vehicle just to haul the produce they got at a farmer's market.
They got a washer and dryer because a Grade 1 class wrote a convincing letter that persuaded a furniture retailer to donate the set. They got $1,000 from two girls who made and sold homemade bracelets for $3 apiece.
"I think the people in Steinbach really see the need," Thiessen said.
"There's a lot of people in this town that have a lot and there's a lot of people in this town that don't have anything," she said. "The people that have are really willing to give, and it's such an amazing thing for us to keep running."
The number of people in Steinbach who don't have enough is rising. The centre, which is located on the second floor of Steinbach Mennonite Church, supports around 525 families annually — 100 more families than those who needed help prior to the pandemic.
"We do find that there is more people coming in here, struggling to make ends meet and maybe on the verge of losing their place," she said.
It's one reason the organization, which is supported almost entirely by donations, has decided to build a 24-unit complex for low-income individuals. The $1.3 million provided through a government grant has already been eclipsed by funding from private donors.
Pulling on purse strings, heartstrings
The desire in the Steinbach area to help others has also bonded 75 women toward a common goal.
The Chrysalis Fund is a women's giving circle in which philanthropists donate their own money into a pooled fund and then decide how to divvy up the money each year. The capital is invested so the fund — and how much is given — keeps growing. More than $11,700 will be distributed this year.
Simone Penner was trying to convince her friend, Debbie Krahn, to join a similar group in Winnipeg when they decided to start one in Steinbach instead.
Since 2009, they've supported charities that assist families, youth and children, Penner said.
"What better way than for us women to pull our purse strings and heartstrings together and give back to the community."
Members range in age from their early 30s to 100. One highlight for Penner was meeting a family who helped their mom find a charity to support every year. They decided, in her 100th year, to make her a member of the Chrysalis Fund.
She died in the last year, Penner said, but "now this is a legacy that is in perpetuity for her."
Lindsey Banman is the youngest member of the group.
"The fact that [the donations] lives on forever, it just means sustainability in a community that we love," Banman said.
The group said some members have become volunteers at these charities after hearing about the work they do.
Altruism rooted in faith
Member Moni Loewen, the executive director at ROC Eastman, a charity that gives youth access to recreational opportunities, attributes part of the city's giving spirit to its Mennonite roots. There's a practice among some Christians to give a portion of their income to church, and churches tend to donate to other causes as well.
"I have a sense through my work [with ROC Eastman] that whether people are still faith-based or not, tithing stuck, giving stuck," she said.
Surrounding communities in southeastern Manitoba benefit from the same altruism.
In the late 1990s, Niverville, Man., was facing a big obstacle: the province wouldn't help them build a personal care home because the community didn't have enough seniors — but the community didn't have enough seniors because if they needed supports like a personal care home, they moved away.
So Niverville did it themselves, and opened a $13.8-million-dollar personal care home in 2013 without using any government funding.
Gordon Daman, who helped lead the project, said many people donated and many local contractors offered discounts to build the facility.
Through his work supporting other communities in developing senior housing and long-term care projects, Daman knows first-hand that lots of communities are generous. Within Niverville and Steinbach, he recognizes "there is a sense of connectivity around those investments, building and sustaining community, not just for self but for others," he said.
Niverville has since built a life-lease project that required every unit to be purchased before building could start. Some people committed to buying a unit just to make sure the project could be built, Daman said, and years later some of those people are renting out their units at below market rates.
It speaks to a belief, he said, that people in the region think beyond themselves.
"I will always be thankful and also very, very proud of this community. They punch above their weight."