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Compassion from outside to the inside

Open Circle members visit prisoners

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Gerda Klassen has spent years lending a kind ear to a prisoner in Stony Mountain Institution.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Gerda Klassen has spent years lending a kind ear to a prisoner in Stony Mountain Institution. Photo Store

To meet Gerda Klassen is to bear witness to an extraordinary life built on compassion and understanding toward some of the most marginalized individuals in our society -- people who have found themselves at odds with the law.

At 76 years of age, Klassen, a quiet-spoken woman who seems to radiate a gentle yet determined type of kindness, has made the trek to Stony Mountain Institution twice a month for years to visit and offer the hand of friendship to a man serving a lengthy sentence for a serious crime.

"I feel like it's very important for guys on the inside to have a friend on the outside," said Klassen, who volunteers for Open Circle, a faith-based non-profit program that encourages volunteers to live out their faith by visiting people in prison and offering caring, non-judgmental support.

"To be a friend without any agenda...You are not paid, you don't come with all sorts of questions, you're just open to converse. To let them know that they are of value, that they mean something to someone," Klassen said.

Klassen's steadfast devotion to the concept of restorative justice -- an approach to justice that involves victim, offender and community -- has its roots in a deep and unwavering faith. Looking back upon her past, it has no doubt always been a way of life for her.

In the early 1980s, Klassen and her late husband, Addison, established El' Dad Ranch on their property in southeastern Manitoba; a place that, to this day, provides a safe and caring home for adult men who live with intellectual challenges and have been involved with the justice system.

The initial concept was to create a sort of extension of family for the men -- they would live in a trailer, be involved in daily programming including helping out on the farm, and would eat with the Klassen family. This meant Klassen would not only feed her own family of eight, along with three or more foster children (over a period of 12 years, the Klassens fostered 15 children), as well as two or three El' Dad Ranch residents on a daily basis for years.

At times, Klassen said, they faced opposition and petitions from neighbours.

"It's the fear of the unknown," she explained. Yet fortunately, people working in social services and law enforcement understood the value of the program and always came to support them at community hearings.

Over the years, Klassen played an integral role in every program that was developed at El' Dad Ranch, teaching life skills, training eventual staff and helping build community connections.

Between 1992 and 1993, Klassen and her husband took their message of compassion on the road, driving the Mennonite Central Committee's Justice Van across Canada, making up to four public presentations a day to schools, halls, churches and other venues across the country.

Following the Justice Van, Klassen and her husband lived in St. John's, N.L., for three years working with the John Howard Society to create a visitation program there in federal prisons, something unheard of locally at the time.

Back in Manitoba in 1996, Klassen and her husband began to volunteer for Open Circle, a 40-year-old program that is currently run by Initiatives for Just Communities, that matches people in prison with caring community members. Klassen's husband died from cancer in 2007.

"Open Circle can be a tough sell as a volunteer opportunity," said Open Circle director Glenn Morison. "That's what makes Gerda so special. Volunteers are asked to make an open-ended commitment to go to a prison and meet a stranger to visit them twice a month. Unlike many volunteer positions which garner immediate praise and encouragement, those who volunteer in jails and prisons often have to explain, if not defend, what they are doing," he said.

To learn more about how to volunteer or donate to Open Circle, please visit their website at: http://www.initiativesjc.org/index.php/opencircle.

 

If you know a special volunteer, please contact Carolyn Shimmin-Bazak at: carolynshimmin@gmail.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2013 B2

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