Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Compassion from outside to the inside

Open Circle members visit prisoners

  • Print
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

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Jets' coach discusses team's loss to Red Wings

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA Local-(Standup photo)- Humming Around- A female ruby -throated hummingbird fly's through the bee bomb  flowers Friday at the Assiniboine Park English Garden- Nectar from flowers are their main source of food. Hummingbirds wings can beat as fast as 75x times second. Better get a glimpse of them soon the birds fly far south for the winter - from Mexico to South America- JOE BRYKSA/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS- Sept 10, 2009
  • A baby Red Panda in her area at the Zoo. International Red Panda Day is Saturday September 15th and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will be celebrating in a big way! The Zoo is home to three red pandas - Rufus, Rouge and their cub who was born on June 30 of this year. The female cub has yet to be named and the Assiniboine Park Zoo is asking the community to help. September 14, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should the federal government force band chiefs and councillors to disclose their salary information?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google