The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shutdowns have impacted all of us in significant ways. MCC’s Restorative Justice (RJ) programming has also been challenged by the restrictions. The in-person connection that was so crucial to creating a sense of community and support within the RJ program has been replaced with less satisfying video or phone calls.
And yet “core members” of Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA), those who have been released back into society after serving prison time, have adjusted well to the lockdown. Core members are used to isolation and keeping to themselves due to the stigma and fear they experience as ‘ex-cons’; they are now turning that experience into a gift by supporting volunteers and staff who are struggling with the restrictions of the pandemic. “It’s been really something special to see these guys step up and say, ‘Hey, we’ll get through this, we’ll be okay,’” says Rick Pauw, CoSA Program Associate.
Recently some Circles in Hamilton have started a photography club, taking photos of the beauty in nature around them and putting it together in a video. “It’s been a great way for core members and volunteers to get creative together,” says Rick. “They’re really proud of their work and that feeling goes a long way these days.”
One population that is uniquely isolated is the men and women still in prison. Early in the pandemic, Grand Valley Institution for Women, a federal women’s prison in Kitchener which has hosted a number of MCC and other community-run programs, had to shut down all outside programming.
When this happened, Rod Friesen, Restorative Justice Program Coordinator, was musing with program associate Carol O’Neil about what connections the women inside still had with the outside world. “I remember wondering what TV channels they had access to,” recalls Rod. “Carol followed up with one of the staff and found out they could watch Rogers.” Rod and Carol brainstormed some ideas. “Before you know it, we’re producing a TV show!” laughs Carol.
Thus, “Spiritual Wellness with Carol O'Neil and Friends” was born. The show is simple: it features a message written and recorded by Carol in her living room, each episode focusing on a different theme like hope, tolerance, and resilience. Her message is interspersed with reflective music from local musicians. Carol’s messages weave psychology, spiritual teachings, and science into a cohesive, encouraging message that can be applicable to anyone.
After the first episode aired, Carol received powerful affirmation for the value of the show from Miles Schell, chaplain at GVI.
“A resident came to us after we showed your talk on the CCTV during our afternoon count,” recalls Miles. “They were quick to let us know they had been struggling with thoughts of self-harming. They shared that after hearing your presentation, they realized that maybe those thoughts were coming from a place of not knowing what purpose they had in life now that they were incarcerated.” Miles took the opportunity to explore the points from Carol’s message that stood out to them. They expressed gratitude for the program and for the presence of chaplaincy back in GVI. “They left feeling very positive and hopeful,” says Miles.
“Spiritual Wellness with Carol O’Neil and Friends” continues to air every other Tuesday on Rogers (channel 20 in Waterloo Region) as well as online. Plans are to continue producing the show into the new year.