In 2013, Measuredoutcome.org conducted an evaluation on the CoSA (Circles of Support and Accountability) Calgary program. CoSA programs, present in five countries, including Canada, are restorative justice programs that work to reintegrate high-risk, released sex offenders into society after their release from the prison system. The programs have a high success rate, and rely very heavily on community volunteers to deliver their programs.
After completing the formal evaluation report, I was left with questions about who volunteers to work with these men, and what the volunteer experience was actually like. This article is based on a conversation that I had in late 2015 with one of CoSA Calgary’s long serving female volunteers.
Most of us volunteer, or have volunteered at some point in our lives – perhaps helping out at a fundraiser, sitting on a charitable board, or taking part in a fun run or an awareness event. Volunteer work helps us feel good about ourselves and allows us to contribute to people and causes we care about. We feel a connection and compassion for the groups and people we’re working to help.
But what compels someone to volunteer to help people who most likely intimidate and scare most of us? People who most of society tries to stay away from. What compels someone – a woman, no less – to volunteer to work directly with high-risk released offenders and help them reintegrate into life outside of the prison walls?
“Whoever is in jail is getting out.
We can either be a part of helping them reintegrate positively,
or we can be a part of getting them back to jail.
We want them to be a part of society in a positive and effective way.”
Here’s a brief outtake from a conversation I had recently with one of CoSA Calgary’s long serving female volunteers:
How did you hear about CoSA?
I approached Moira in 2009 to do some field placement work. I started working with two circles. I couldn’t bring myself to leave after they ended.
Have you ever felt at risk or unsafe?
No, I haven’t, surprisingly. My husband was worried. These guys have all been vetted and interviewed for a long time before they get into the program. They are serious about changing.
As women, we have to be comfortable with certain language in case the men need to talk something through in detail. We have to be accepting about how they might feel towards women or children so we can be helpful to them.
A lot of the men kind of hate women. Coordinators prepare volunteers for that. It’s important for women to be in the circle so the men can learn mutual respect.
How does CoSA prepare you to work with the men in the program?
We have lots of training. We have one on one with coordinators interviewing men in prison before they leave. It’s intimidating at first, but as volunteers, we have an unbelievable amount of support.
What does a CoSA volunteer do?
We meet with the men, sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, depending on what is needed. We build trust and friendships. We offer empathy and compassion, and we hold the men accountable.
A lot of times, the men are very standoffish at first. They have no reason to trust us, or anyone else. People who have never experienced love and acceptance cannot experience the world in a positive way. Once the men experience these things, they can give them back.
It requires a high level of commitment. It’s not 9-5. If you get a call at 1:00 in the morning, you take it.
What is the most challenging part of working with/volunteering with CoSA?
Trying to get the guys to understand that they are valued and that they deserve the chance. Most of the guys have such low self-esteem. They’ve been knocked down so much, they start to believe that they’re better off dead or in jail. We try to help them see that they’re meant to be here for a positive reason.
What have you learned as a volunteer?
I learned more about myself that I learned about the guys. My own self-awareness has grown. I’m very good at separating the action from the human being. Many people would not have that ability. Nor do they WANT to understand or give these folks a second chance or hear their story.
What do you think CoSA needs to do to better help the volunteers and the men that you work with?
The CoSA coordinators are so dedicated, but they’re also overworked. They are so supportive of the volunteers – they’re always available to us. It’s so much work to look out for us and also to always be on and available to the guys. CoSA needs more coordinators – but that means more money.
Describe the ideal CoSA volunteer
First and foremost, you need to be caring, compassionate, and open-minded. You need to accept people for where they’re at, and hope that the future is better and brighter for these folks. There’s a high level of commitment and you need to know that you’re always ON and ready to help if someone needs assistance.
Being able to give lots of encouragement for little things is important – baby steps with expectations. Things that we take for granted are huge accomplishments for these men. They become proud of their accomplishments, and they report this to their group.
Whoever is in jail is getting out. We can either be a part of helping them reintegrate positively, or we can be a part of getting them back to jail. We want them to be a part of society in a positive and effective way.
For more information on the Measuredoutcome.org evaluation report, please visit: No More Victims
For more information on CoSA, please visit: MCC Canada CoSA