For many offenders re-entering society, leaving the penitentiary is the beginning of a new chapter, and that alone can cause stress. After all, there are innumerable unknowns waiting for them, while the circumstances that led to their incarceration may still be factors.
Luckily, there are programs like the Faith Community Reintegration Program, which links faith communities of all denominations with individuals on parole, with the goal of strengthening relationships between community members and newly released offenders.
Funded by CSC, the program is usually administered through a parole officer’s referral. Its purpose is firmly rooted in the spirit of restorative justice: It does not excuse the offender nor his or her actions, but instead comes in after the offender has paid a debt to society and demonstrated a willingness to reintegrate.
Having a sense of purpose, of belonging to a community beyond the self has the benefit of providing hope. It’s imperative that offenders take ownership of their rehabilitation process, but projects like this make the transition smoother by fostering supportive relationships in the spirit of social unity.
For some, it’s apartment hunting they need help with. For others, it’s finding a job. Sometimes, it’s even just meeting for coffee – every so often, people just need a sympathetic ear or a friendly conversation to renew (or build) their faith in themselves.
It’s that attention and empathy towards the circumstances of former offenders that make the program so meaningful. While it makes no excuses for the crimes committed, it extends a helping hand to those in need, those who have a second chance.
Steph Chander Burns, who works with the program through the Mennonite Central Committee in London, Ontario, puts it this way: “When a person is in survival mode, worrying about where their next meal might come from, or focused on housing or employment, it is much more difficult to connect to the bigger world outside one’s self. Therefore, physical thriving is a spiritual need, as the barriers to housing, employment, food, etc., also act as barriers to increasing connection with the surrounding community.”
In addition to extending community roots to former offenders, the program also provides its participants with a hamper filled with common household products that are uniquely helpful for the newly released, like paper towels, toilet paper, laundry detergent, dishtowels, and household cleaning products, among others.
As Steph explains, sharing the same faith – or even having religious convictions - is not a requirement for participation.
“There is no requirement of faith to receive a hamper. Faith communities put the hampers together, as a part of their commitment to the community… there is no expectation that an individual attend, or even interact with a faith community to receive the hamper. It is simply a gift, welcoming individuals into the community.”