Imagine awakening from a 20-year sleep, just like Rip Van Winkle. The world has completely changed – and now you need to figure out how to live in it. Everything is new and different . . . and you feel completely intimidated. Your friends are gone. Your family is gone. Somehow, you have to find a way to live in this new world. You have no money, nowhere to live, and you don’t even know how to begin finding a job in this scary new world. Will you steal to survive?
For over 40 years, the M2/W2 Association of Abbotsford has been quietly providing friendship, help, and support to people in this very situation. People who are leaving our local prisons after repaying their debt to society and are now trying to fit back in. And just as quietly, many of these individuals are experiencing success and a new life.
The M2/W2 story is an amazing one. More than 300 local volunteers donate time to visit with prisoners in 11 correctional facilities, providing male and female inmates with a listening ear, friendship, a positive role model, and years of ongoing relationship. When they leave the prison, M2/W2 is there for them, helping them transition back to life in the community. Some M2/W2 volunteers have provided decades of service, ending only when they themselves have passed on. M2/W2 also provides the COSA program for released sex offenders, to ensure “no more victims,” through Circles of Support and Accountability. COSA functions with support from the National Crime Prevention Centre, the Chaplaincy Branch of the Correctional Service of Canada, and in partnership with Catholic Charities.
Even with more than 300 volunteers, there are currently 200 inmates still waiting for a M2/W2 match. The program matches inmates “Man to Man/Woman to Woman” to create a friendship that is transformative for both. Volunteers are inspired by how they can make a difference. Inmates experience caring, which allows them to trust, sometimes for the first time in their lives. For many, their M2/W2 sponsor is their first genuine friend. They recognize how volunteers speak into their lives in ways that correctional staff cannot.
Now, more than ever, communities need to think about how released prisoners will return to their communities. More prisoners stay to the very end of their sentences as a “tough on crime” measure, meaning they will have no supervision or support when they leave the jail. This increases the risk for new crimes by people who have no means of supporting themselves, nowhere to live, and have no support from others. Since most jail sentences have an end point, it’s not a matter of “if” . . . it’s a matter of “when.” Research shows that those who have community support are far more successful in living a successful, law abiding life than those who are shunned, stigmatized, or ostracized because of their previous criminal record. That may seem counter-intuitive, especially to those who want to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” However, as government funding is cut, the pressure increases for communities to think about how to integrate returning prisoners in ways that supports public safety and crime prevention, while also providing opportunities for released prisoners to become productive, law-abiding citizens who are able to give back.
The M2/W2 Association is launching the NOLA program to address this challenge, named after the M2/W2 motto that “No One Leaves Alone.”
Based on M2/W2’s model of Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) the NOLA program will match 4 – 6 highly trained volunteers to each program participant, to help them re-enter society safely and successfully. NOLA volunteers work with others in the community to provide resources, and help them find work, housing, and learn the life skills they need to function successfully. The released prisoner must agree to live transparently and with accountability to receive help and support. In return, they receive the gift of friendship, guidance, moral support, and the wisdom of other community members to learn how to make it in the outside world.
The National Crime Prevention Centre has recognized that this model works, noting that participants in COSA programs re-offended at significantly lower rates than other released offenders, and many did not re-offend at all. Community members felt safer, knowing that other community volunteers were helping supervise and guide the activities of the COSA participants. The component of friendship and acceptance made a big difference, increasing participant success over other programs that only provided surveillance and supervision. While COSA is designed only for sex offenders, NOLA is available to inmates who have committed a variety of different offences, and are now returning to society without any friends or family to assist them.
The public is invited to hear more about the NOLA program, and how to get involved as a local volunteer or community supporter. Join the M2/W2 Association on Thursday, June 20, 7 – 9 pm, at Rick Hansen Secondary School Library. You can find out more about the M2/W2 Association at www.m2w2.com. RSVP to reserve your spot at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 604-859-3215.