I think of January as the unofficial season of good intentions. Like a lot of people, I’ve made numerous New Years Resolutions to change some aspect of my life. By February they have always been pretty much forgotten.
Having worked with inmates in most Lower Mainland prisons, I know that for men and women coming out of prison, change is even more difficult. Many have lost family connections. Often they have few employment skills. They may know only other ex-cons and have no positive vision for themselves. There is little hope for a better future.
Upon release some return immediately to their previous haunts. Prison regulations have stripped them of the ability to plan and organize their lives. It was only with the assistance of a mentor that my friend Peter was able to throw off the far reaching shackles of prison life.
As a boy, Peter told me, he sometimes helped himself to items in stores. If caught, his father made him pay, then gave him a whipping.
“As I got older,” he said, “I started drinking and hanging out with a rough crowd.”
He credits his father with ensuring he knew how to work. “I always had a job,” he said, “and I always had money. When I was 20 I bought a brand new convertible. I traded that for a pickup and drove from Ontario to B.C.”
In BC he attended a noisy drinking party. “I had money so I brought booze. I didn’t realize some of the girls were under age. The police came and I was arrested.”
That earned him time in Oakalla for contributing to juvenile delinquency. Here he became acquainted with hard core criminals. Upon release he began doing B & E’s with a partner. That netted him 2 years in the B.C. Penitentiary.
He applied to M2/W2 (Man to Man, Woman to Woman) for a citizen sponsor and was matched with Henry, a no nonsense poultry farmer who attended a conservative Mennonite church. Henry visited Peter regularly and they engaged in some intense discussions, especially concerning his culture, simple life style and faith. Peter came to respect Henry for his inner strength, solid character, and total integrity. He had never been close to a strong, compassionate individual before. Pragmatic and astute, Henry evidently saw the potential in this head strong young man.
Over 14 months, a bond developed and through Henry’s influence, Peter came to have a more positive understanding of life. It was by no means a complete change though and when he was given early parole, his intention was to return to Vancouver. “I had nothing and nowhere to go,” he said.
Henry picked Peter up at the prison, with the understanding he would drop him off in Vancouver. Realizing Peter would almost certainly return to his criminal life, he suggested, “why don’t you come and see my farm?” Having no better plan, Peter agreed.
“Henry introduced me to his wife and children. They welcomed me. I felt at ease and accepted.” He stayed a few days and when the contractor building a barn for Henry needed a worker, he hired Peter. “You can live with us,” Henry offered.
The family’s simple lifestyle was unfamiliar to Peter at first. He didn’t resent their ways though. “Henry always gave thanks to God before meals. I liked that.”
“At first going to church with them was scary because it was so unfamiliar,” he remembers. “ But people were friendly. They already knew about me from Henry. I felt accepted.”
Before long he married Sylvia, a young woman from the church. He learned several trades and always had work. They bought a small acreage and raised their 4 children there. Peter is now semi- retired.
His words when we spoke recently helped me understand more fully what had made the transformation possible. “Henry was a good influence,” he said. “ I give him and the people of the church credit for helping me learn to have stability in my life. And I give God the credit for giving me a family, friends, the jobs I’ve had, and our little farm. Everything. I could not have done this on my own.” Change comes more easily when we have a friend who encourages us to go in a good direction.