Twenty-six years ago Niels Bjelbo’s life was at a standstill. He had reached rock bottom. Desperate for a change, he joined a self-help group and was, in his words, rescued. This taught him an important lesson – that anyone, no matter their circumstances, can move forward. It’s this wisdom that Niels has brought to his work as Chair of the Keele Community Correctional Centre (KCCC) Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), and what has lead to him winning the 2016 James A. Murphy CAC Award of Excellence.
“I know what it’s like to have to start over again,” he says. “The residents appreciate that I can relate to having to learn how to live life again. It’s my strength and what helps me help them.”
CACs believe in public safety, the right of all citizens to be involved in the correctional process, and the ability of offenders to become law-abiding citizens. There are hundreds of citizens who are active in the CAC program at federal institutions and district parole offices across Canada. Members are citizens who come from different cultures and backgrounds, and range from university students to retirees. They support offenders while incarcerated and in the community move forward toward a successful reintegration. The James A. Murphy CAC Award of Excellence is awarded annually to recognize individuals or teams within CACs and /or CSC who inspire with their expressed commitment, drive and leadership in advancing the CAC movement.
Niels became a volunteer at the KCCC in 2004 taking offenders to and from their self-help group meetings. From there he was introduced to the CAC and decided to get involved. He became Chair of it in 2012 and has remained committed to building a relationship between the community and the KCCC ever since. Whether he’s knocking on doors to talk with local citizens about their concerns, meeting with community agencies and groups, encouraging business owners to hire offenders, hosting community forums to raise awareness of criminal justice and correctional issues in the community, or forming a speaker’s bureau, he’s busy.
“The biggest barrier the new KCCC residents face is their fear of failure,” Niels says. “Life on parole for new arrivals is filled with challenges partly because things in the community have changed since they were last in it. Most offenders feel out of place and very visible. Being released to the community means they need to make more choices and be more responsible. This process can be very difficult for them. Without having the skills or tools to do so, it can be daunting.”
Part of the healing process involves supporting parole officers in finding employment for the offenders. Niels works with them and local businesses to secure part-time jobs that will help the offenders use and develop their skills, keep busy, gain confidence, and earn some income to support their independence. As well, Niels and his colleagues provide support to offenders who are in need of SIN cards and identification records and are unsure of the processes to follow. They have also established a work boot program that provides offenders with the boots they need to work at particular sites within the community. Overall, says Niels, they are there to support the offenders and guide them – something he takes great pride in.
“I feel that I make a difference here,” says Niels. “As CAC members at KCCC, we contribute to the quality of the correctional process by exercising our roles as advisors, impartial observers, and links to the community. Our impartiality is key to our credibility with staff, offenders and management.”
Let’s Talk would like to congratulate Niels on this honour. We invite you to learn more about becoming a CAC member in your community!