During my years working with young offenders at the One Way Adventure Foundation in Hedley, we at times had students run away, especially from the Residential Attendance Program (RAP). The students in RAP were sent by a judge and were deemed among the most difficult and devious. When they arrived, most were burdened by a history of failure, a gnawing sense of despair.
Pretty 15 year old Candace was in this program and when I heard on my 2-way radio that she had just run, I was disappointed but not particularly surprised. Possibly the prettiest female student ever assigned to RAP, at times she was also the loneliest and saddest. The referring probation officer had expressed concern she was drifting inexorably into drug using associations and a criminal culture. The judge said, “By sending you to Hedley, I’m giving you a chance to think about your life.”
From the beginning, Candace exhibited a volatile emotional state. In her happy moments she brushed her black shoulder length hair until it shone in the Hedley sun. At such times she wore clean jeans and usually a white blouse. Her effervescent laughter lifted the spirits of those around her. In these happy moments, she sparkled and could have been a successful beauty queen contestant. On group outings to Penticton, men sometimes gazed at her unabashedly.
Now dusk was already approaching. She must have hoped she could elude us in the coming darkness. Almost certainly her plan was to get to the # 3 highway, which passed through our community. With her attractive face and pleasing figure, any trucker would be quick to stop.
Fortunately she didn’t get that far. “She’s on the rock bluff overlooking the highway,” the voice on the radio announced. “Threatening to jump.”
Already I saw her slim figure high on the bluff, facing away from me toward the other side where several staff were gathered, anxiously looking upward. From this high perch I faintly heard her voice, tinged with desperate despondency. “You come up and I’ll jump!” Strenuous urging to come down might cause her to become unhinged mentally and emotionally. She needed time. I realized though that even if we waited, inner turmoil might compel her to leap.
Intent on keeping those on the other side of the bluff under surveillance, she had not noticed me. Realizing I was out of her line of sight, I began climbing up the unstable shale, proceeding carefully so I wouldn’t send chunks of rock clattering down.
After climbing steadily for about 10 minutes, my upper body was at a level where I could see her standing, no more than 4 meters away. Not wanting her to think I might attempt to seize her, I didn’t ascend higher.
When she ceased shouting down at the workers, I said quietly, “Candace, I’m here. I won’t come closer.”
Surprised, she turned to face me, then sat down resignedly on a large rock. “It’s no use Art,” she said. “I’m tired of trying. It’s too hard. No one cares.” A tear trickled slowly down one cheek. I knew the workers closest to her cared deeply, but we were not her family. “My mom and sisters have come once in 3 months. The farther away I am, the better they like it.” She brushed away the tear.
“You’re very special to everyone here,” I said.
“Without my family, I have nothing.” She turned toward the darkening valley. “Don’t come close,” she warned. “I don’t want to talk anymore.”
Although I felt she had come to trust me somewhat during the past 3 months, she was now shutting me out. The workers below realized someone was attempting to engage her and had grown silent. I was concerned that once darkness settled in, her gloom would become more intense. Sensing she had drifted into a realm beyond my reach, I whispered a desperate silent prayer. Even now I don’t know if I expected an answer. “Candace,” I said. “I’ve been asking God to put his arms around you and keep you safe.”
She sat unresponsive for a long moment and I wondered if she had heard my words. Then, in the fading light I saw her rise and silently come in my direction. Not knowing what to expect, I stepped aside on the shale. She passed and cautiously began descending. Candace had found hope for another day.