It’s a heartbreaking occurrence on Aboriginal reserves in Williams Lake, British Columbia. Children removed from their homes by the Ministry of Children and Family Development, often on very short notice in the middle of the night.
One can only imagine the fear and uncertainty they experience in that moment, wondering where they are going and why. Still, comfort does come to each one of them in the form of a “bag of love” prepared by the Ministry and given to the children when they most need it. In it, essentials such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, pajamas, and one plush sock monkey to hold on to.
What the children don’t know is that those sock monkeys were made by federal offenders. Many of whom were those children not so long ago, leaving broken homes and heading into foster care. It’s something they do as part of the Work to Give Program, a partnership between CSC and the Punky Lake Wilderness Camp Society that provides offenders with the opportunity to engage in meaningful employment, develop work skills, implement program skills, and give back to the communities they come from and return to.
Sarah Jackman is the Executive Director of the Punky Lake Wilderness Camp Society, a non-profit organization that supports crime prevention through diversion programming for First Nations youth that prevents them from falling off the right path. She acts as the “middle man” between CSC’s institutions that participate in the program (Mountain, Pacific, Mission, Kwìkwèxwelhp Healing Village, Kent, William Head, and Matsqui) and the communities benefiting from it.
“The impact that these offenders have on our communities is enormous,” she says. “The sock monkeys are just one thing they make for us. They truly make a difference for people in need.”
The program started in 2012 with offenders making beds for children on reserves. Many of them were sleeping on the floor or a couch, so the thinking was that if offenders could provide new beds, the children would get a good night’s sleep and it would reflect in their school attendance, health, and overall quality of life.
Today, the program has expanded. Offenders are making all kinds of furniture such as nightstands, tables, chairs, and homework desks. They build picnic tables, park benches, and bear-proof garbage cans for the community. They knit hats, mitts, and scarves to keep children who might not otherwise have anything to keep them warm. They grow and ship thousands of pounds of fresh organic vegetables to the communities, none of which have an actual grocery store on site. And they make toys so that every child has something to play with that is their own. As Sarah says, if they can make it, the communities will take it. All of the products are delivered to the communities throughout the year by T-Lane Trucking, a company that donates its trucks and time to this initiative.
“The response from these offenders has been amazing,” she says. “They want to help in any way they can. We have some guys who create art that we can auction off for money that goes straight back into our programming. Others make drums so that each child in our community drumming groups has one. One offender even made a beautiful doll house from nothing but wood, paint, and scraps that is now in our youth center.”
The impact that the Work to Give Program has had on the communities and offenders is currently being explored by the University of British Columbia School of Nursing through a two-year research grant. They are studying the effects on the mental health of the men involved with the program, the impact on the culture within participating institutions, as well as the communities as a whole. Interviews are currently in progress.
The results of this study will take some time to become available, but for Harpreet Grewal, a Program Delivery Officer at Pacific Institution, the impact on the men involved is clear.
“A lot of them find it very therapeutic,” says Harpreet. “While making something for children, they are also thinking about how they grew up. Some of them will say things like, ‘I wish I had this growing up.’
“Not only that, but they are learning many different skills as well. They are working on their relationship skills by working with other offenders. They are learning to take leadership roles on projects and manage timelines to meet delivery deadlines to the communities. Some are even teaching one another new skills. One fellow is great at carving and has been teaching others how to do it too. Overall, they are learning compassion and kindness for others.”
Sarah has also seen first-hand what participating in this project has meant to the offenders involved.
“I will bring them pictures of little kids sitting on their new beds and the guys are just so emotional about it,” she says. “When they found out that their sock monkeys were being given to children when removed from their homes, that especially resonated with them. I had five guys tearing up in front of me saying ‘that was me.’”
Being in the community, Sarah can also speak to the ways in which the program has affected the people who benefit from the products made by offenders. And it’s not necessarily in a way that anyone could have expected, she says, which is what makes this program so special.
“What is really interesting is that it isn’t only about the community members being grateful for the items, which they of course are. What’s incredible is that they want to know how it’s helping the offenders. They want to know if they are healing because of this, and if it makes them feel good. So, we are getting the best reaction from both sides of this story because the offenders just want to know how the communities are doing, and the communities just want to know how the offenders are doing. It created this connectivity that we didn’t really see coming.”