Many students look to gain experience for future careers by volunteering with children, the elderly or animals, but not Mandi Gray.
Studying sociology and criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, the 21-year-old wanted to start making a difference in her field as well as learn hands-on skills by working with those involved in the criminal justice system.
For just over a year now, the third-year student has donated her time to the Elizabeth Fry Society, a non-profit organization that aims to reduce the number of women and girls involved in the criminal justice system by providing programs and resources.
Once each week, Gray volunteers with incarcerated women at the Winnipeg Remand Centre, running a literacy group. The aim of the literacy program is to interest the women in furthering their education so that upon release, they will do just that.
Gray has also helped the agency with Women for Change, facilitating the 10-week anger-management program for women released from prison. In addition, she has spent time assisting in the agency's clothing depot, which provides incarcerated women with clothing and some essentials upon their release, which makes integration into society easier.
Since starting as a volunteer, Gray said, she has learned a lot and has decided conclusively that she would like to work for the Elizabeth Fry Society or a similar agency upon graduation.
"I always wanted to work in the social services; I just wasn't sure what aspect, and once I started volunteering here, I had more direction," said Gray, an East St. Paul resident.
"It's a good experience. I think I've gained a lot more confidence in myself in dealing with people from different backgrounds and different education levels."
She said the Elizabeth Fry Society offers volunteers a very positive work environment and that she enjoys working with the staff as well as with the clients.
"Once people come in here, you realize that everyone is just a person like yourself and everyone has their own struggles," she explained. "It doesn't make someone different from anyone else just because they've been involved with the law. It's not intimidating once you're here."
Executive director Tracy Booth said Gray's attitude is exactly what the agency is trying to portray to the public. She said women who have had involvement in the criminal justice system are often not given a second chance and therefore have a difficult time upon being released from prison.
"People need to realize that if you come out of jail, no matter what you've done in this country, you've paid your debt to society," Booth said.
"The more we ostracize people who have criminal records, the more that means they won't be able to integrate into society. If you can't get a job again or you can't get a place to live — just your basic needs — those are huge barriers. Everyone needs to realize not to enable those barriers to exist," Booth said.
If you would like more information or would like to become a volunteer with the Elizabeth Fry Society, please contact community outreach coordinator Heather Bristow at 589-7335 extension 224. More information can also be found online at www.efsmanitoba.org.
The organization is currently in need of volunteer tutors for the literacy program as well as volunteer facilitators to lead both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups.
Additionally, the agency is hoping to find volunteers willing to serve as friendly visitors for incarcerated women.
If you know a special volunteer who strives to make their community a better place to live, please contact Erin Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org.