As a new student arriving in Kingston, Ontario, to study at Queen’s University, one of the first things Helen noticed about her surroundings was the dichotomy of a city that is home to one of Canada’s most respected post-secondary institutions, is also home to five correctional facilities of differing size and security levels.
As someone who has had a lifelong interest in human behaviour, sociology, and psychology, she had an instant realization that some of Canada’s best and brightest students are also sharing the same community as some of the country’s most marginalized citizens. “Within a week of starting university, I discovered the Queen’s Correctional Services Volunteers (QCSV), a student-run group of only 10, volunteering with offenders at local correctional institutions. Within a month, I was visiting the Kingston Parole Office, applying for a police check, and completing training to receive my official Correctional Service of Canada Volunteer ID,” said Kosc.
CSC Registered Volunteers play a key role in helping to bridge the gap between the correctional environment and the community. They bring a public presence to our institutions, and are an integral part of many offenders' lives, whether the offender is in prison or on parole.
Volunteers contribute to a variety of institution-based programs including chaplaincy, recreation activities, classroom and workshop instruction, social events, and cultural activities. For example, Helen was able to help organize and participate in art classes, yoga and mindfulness classes, employment workshops, and other services that are meant to equip inmates with the skills they need after their release. “I’ve had the incredible opportunity of working with more than 100 offenders, impacting their lives in some capacity for the better through my volunteering,” shares Helen.
While running employment workshops at Collin’s Bay minimum institution, Helen provided a forum for inmates to share the experiences and challenges they have faced in the employment process. Through questions and discussion groups, the inmates were able to receive feedback and in turn, showed a high level of dedication to learning.
“The QCSV volunteers are a remarkable group of young people who decided to make an impact in our community and to impart change with some of our most challenging offenders. I have had the privilege to experience some of the social and learning initiatives the group has delivered and there is always an atmosphere of support, understanding, and respect that fills the room,” says Ontario District Director, Dave Finucan. “Helen has been leading this change and has introduced new volunteers to the group as they have expanded throughout Kingston’s federal institutions.”
When asked if there was a specific memory or experience that inspired her, Helen shared the story of an offender named Felix (name changed for privacy), a 21-year old inmate with a three-year sentence for aggravated assault who maintained a tough demeanor. Through their work together, he expressed his fear to re-enter the world with his grade two academic level. The workshops that QCSV was hosting helped him to regain his confidence to re-enter the community. “Volunteers have a profound impact on the offenders they work with,” Helen emphasized. “The programs that we offer become an integral part of many of the offenders’ lives. The type of volunteering may differ across a typical day, but the gratitude we receive from the inmates remains consistent.”
Helen explains, “Just knowing that there are individuals who care and who are willing to freely volunteer their time can go a long way in helping offenders realize their worth as members of the community, and even more importantly, their potential for successful reintegration.”
The benefits of these experiences also extend to the volunteers; Helen notes, “It was volunteering with CSC that allowed me to apply my interest in behavioural studies and decision-making to the field of criminal justice.” In the past year, Helen also single-handedly created the QCSV’s first website. Already showing great success, she hopes the website will continue to spread awareness of their mission to the larger community. “In less than a year after its creation, the club has had over 250 students subscribe and express their interest.” These growing numbers are important, as Helen believes that there is always more work to do. “The work of volunteers and CSC staff is not simply helping the offenders as individual human beings but is helping make our institutions and communities safer places for everyone.”
Helen hopes to continue her passion and career in criminal justice with her recent acceptance to the Master of Science in Sociology program at Oxford University. “My goal at Oxford is to study what motivates ex-offenders to reoffend and how can we minimize its appeal.”
CSC Community Volunteer Coordinator, Tina Evans says, “Helen has been an integral part of this group and her recent acceptance into a prestigious school such as Oxford University is a testament to her interest and drive in the area of criminology and corrections. Helen is an example of a new generation of young people that want to support the reintegration of federal offenders back into our communities.” Dave adds, “I am excited to see what the future will hold for Helen as she builds upon volunteer experiences and incorporates her academic excellence. We wish Helen the very best in her studies and will be forever grateful for the inspiration and hope she has provided to our offenders.”
Tina also acknowledges the support of all of the QCSV volunteers, saying, “This group has provided excellent community support for our federal offenders both living in the Kingston Community but also in our local institutions, we can’t thank them enough.”
*Note this story was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you would like to volunteer with CSC, visit our website to learn more.