Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Giving voice to those living behind bars

Women have a safe place to share their thoughts

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Sometimes, something as simple as having a conversation with a person and doing a craft with them can have a big impact. That's what Joan Kirouac has found.

Kirouac is part of Stride, a group of 15 female volunteers who travel each Monday evening to the Women's Correctional Centre in Headingley. While there, the volunteers meet for two hours with about 20 women who are serving time.

Their time together begins with a sharing circle, during which a feather is passed around and whoever is holding the feather can speak about whatever they want.

"We usually talk about what went on during the last week," said Kirouac, a retired banker and grandmother of three. "How do you deal with life? How do you react to different situations? We laugh a lot, which is really neat."

SSLqThe relationships that get built are incredible'

During the second half of the evening, the group works on a craft together. Most recently, the women have been making moccasins.

"It's amazing what kind of sharing goes on. It's us sharing with the women and them sharing with us, but it's not about the crimes. It's about life and providing mutual encouragement. The relationships that get built are incredible."

Stride is one of a few programs run by Initiatives for Just Communities (IJC), a charitable organization that offers friendship, support and care to individuals with intellectual disabilities, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and people who are currently or were formerly in prison.

Kirouac's husband has volunteered with Open Circle, an IJC program that involves one-on-one prisoner visitation, for eight years. When Stride started in April 2013, she decided to get involved.

Kirouac thought Stride would be a good way to help women who have not been as fortunate in life as she has been. At first, she thought a weekly commitment might be too much, but that has not been the case.

"Once you get started, you don't want to miss a Monday. You just see the encouragement it is for these women. They are so thankful... It's very encouraging."

Glenn Morison, who oversees Stride and Open Circle, says the goal of Stride is to provide a safe, non-judgmental space where the women can be themselves. "There's a toughness you have to have in jail," he said. "We hope to create a space for an hour or two where they trust the people in the group -- where they can be more relaxed about things and not put on an act."

Morison adds Kirouac's contributions have been really important. "Joan's fantastic," he said. "She's non-judgmental and she's compassionate."

Stride is currently looking for more volunteers. Anyone interested can call Morison at 204-290-9200 for more information.

The program aims to have a 1:1 volunteer/inmate ratio, so more volunteers means more women can benefit from the program.

The relationships Stride volunteers form with inmates will hopefully continue once the inmates are released, so they have support in the face of the challenges that come with reintegrating into society. "We want to facilitate the women's healthy integration into community... and provide a gateway to other services that are out there," Kirouac said.

If you know a special volunteer, please contact aaron.epp@gmail.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 30, 2014 B2

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