‘It becomes part of your life’: Tony Vanderwal and Bernie Martens on 50 years of volunteering with offenders

Tony Vanderwal and Bernie Martens were used to doing volunteer work through their churches when they first learned about M2/W2, then called Canadian Job Therapy (M2), in the late 1960s.

M2/W2 is an organization that pairs volunteers with inmates, enabling a supportive, mentoring relationship that helps offenders develop a positive mindset and get ready for their return to the community. There are over 300 volunteers currently working with the organization.

Tony was one of the original board members when M2 first incorporated in Canada, and it wasn’t long before he became a volunteer as well.

“If I was a board member, I should know what’s going on. If you’ve never been in prison, how are you going to judge?” Tony explains. “That’s how it slowly started. We had probably a meeting once a month in (New Westminster, B.C.) and my first visit was to the Haney institution, along with four or five men from the church who went all together.”

Tony describes how it felt on that first visit: “Prison is a strange thing, you know? You kind of have the shivers as you first walk in, right? But we had a great chaplain who gave us some very good instructions and some insight, how to deal, what’s allowed, what’s not allowed.”

“And then a while after, we hired Bernie Martens,” Tony goes on to explain. “Bernie used to go around to the wardens in the prison system asking for permission and whatnot – I’m not sure of all the things he did, he’s done so many good things, that boy. This must have been either ‘67 or ‘68.”

Bernie Martens remembers those early days as well.

He was attending the University of British Columbia when M2/W2 told him that there was an inmate at Matsqui Institution that had a pass to attend classes as UBC as well. The two were paired up.

Bernie would go to Matsqui in the mornings to pick up the inmate, and the two of them would drive to UBC together: “We had lots of time for discussion, over an hour one way. We talked about a lot of things: our studies, our histories, our backgrounds, goals in life and so on.

“It was a very worthwhile experience and I was totally relaxed with that process of going to Matsqui and picking him up and travelling together. Things like that aren’t done today but they were then.”

Both men speak to their motivation for working with offenders in similar terms.

“It’s what I can do well for the men and for the nation,” Tony explains. “This has always appealed to me, helping people. And it still does. I have one inmate out at Kwi [Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village], which is 75 km from here, so round trip is 150 km. People say ‘Why do you do this?’ Well, there’s a man there who’s 25 years in prison and I hope that this spring he goes to his parole hearing and we get him out. Because if I can do it for him to help him, so be it.”

“Why offenders?” Bernie asks, “I’m not sure. Perhaps it was my upbringing, in terms of what my parents and grandparents taught me – that all humans have value and we as a community have a responsibility to demonstrate compassion for all of humanity no matter who they are, their background and what they’re about.”

M2/W2 volunteers like Tony and Bernie work with offenders as part of the organization’s Prison Mentorship Program.

Tony characterizes of his 50 years of volunteering in similar terms: “I see us less as volunteers than as mentors. It’s over the years and years as you get to know them and they start to depend on you, your language, your cues are totally different from those that they are living with.”

Both men continue to visit inmates they’ve worked with through M2/W2, including some that are real success stories.

“One that really stands out and I still have contact with is Joe,” Tony says. “His mom and dad were very poor and he wasn’t even 20 when I got to know him. Joe got 20 years. I would visit him and when he got out and went to a halfway house in Vancouver that had a college right across the street.

Tony got Joe into the college and the two remained friends as Joe started a family and got married. Tony even served as best man at the wedding.

“He got out and we got him started with a half-ton pickup truck going to the Vancouver airport in the morning to pick up parcels and deliver them,” Tony says. “Today he has a five-ton truck. So he’s done very well.

“He’s got two boys and one has just graduated from law School at UBC. I don’t travel as much these days but I used to drop in and say hi whenever I was in Vancouver. Now I just talk to him on the phone.”

According to Bernie, maintaining relationships after release is encouraged.

“We have some of those relationships go on for decades,” he explains. “For example, I just lost one of the guys that I worked with for over 42 years and he had no next of kin. He was hospitalized and I put my name on the hospital records so that if anything happens, you know, be in touch. He has no one. And we have those situations repeated often.”

Recruitment is always a priority for M2/W2, something that Bernie, as a retired, long-time M2/W2 staff member, knows well.

“We always had a long wait list of prisoners. Recruitment was difficult, especially if something negative happened in prisons or in the community. But once they said yes, and they had their training, our training and CSC training, it wasn’t unusual for a volunteer to come up to me and say ‘I wish I had started this sooner.’”

As for Tony, who has been working with M2/W2 for 50 years and still mentors two inmates, he’s not ready to retire.

“I just had one of my old friends who retired because the family didn’t want him to drive anymore - especially in the dark - because most of our cases are at night,” Tony says. “He was a volunteer for 30-odd years too. Then you miss it. It becomes part of your life.”

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