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A pillow full of hope

From prison to community, The Bridge helps detainees  and their families adjust to life after prison

By Debra Downey, Senior Editor

When Steven arrived at the Hamilton GO station on Dec. 2, 2011 from Maplehurst Correctional Complex, his life fit into a pillowcase — a very small pillowcase.

Tucked securely inside the linen folds were Steven’s identification documents and his Bible. He had no money, no job, no home, not even a warm winter coat to ward off the chills of that frigid December day.

“I was arrested May 9, it was warm. I had the clothes on my back, jeans and a T-shirt, nothing else,” said Steven.

Unlike many men and women who have just been released from prison, Steven — whose last name has been withheld to protect his family’s privacy — did have a place to stay, at least temporarily. After learning Steven was determined to return to the city of his birth, a discharge planner at Maplehurst referred him to The Bridge House. Before being accepted into the six-bed facility, Steven underwent a screening process conducted by executive director James Bowick.

“I wanted to know if (Steven) was committed to change and (to make sure) he wasn’t going to drag others down. Was he likely to be able to live alone and did he have future goals?” said Bowick.

The Bridge: From Prison to Community has been in existence since 1989; transitional housing at The Bridge House began in 2004. At the Barton Street East location, former prisoners like Steven receive practical and emotional support in their attempts to adjust to life after prison. Some ex-cons are successful in their transformation; others are not.

Steven spent two months at Bridge House from December 2011 to January 2012 before moving into his own place on Feb. 1. Admittedly, his new digs are small, but they are clean and tidy, and most importantly, they allow Steven to visit with the precious four-year-old love of his life.

“My own apartment was the first step toward my future, the security of my own home, and I have a daughter so I had to have my own place,” said Steven.

Space in Steven’s pillow case was starting to fill. He had the key to that prized apartment, some chocolate Easter eggs, two purses and the sheer joy that comes from the unconditional, unwavering love of a child.

Steven’s face quite literally lights up when he speaks of the toddler whose name and date of birth are tattooed on his forearm. While their time together is often too short, Steven tries to make the most of the precious few hours they manage to spend in each other’s company.  On Easter weekend, he hid 10 tiny foil-wrapped Easter eggs around his apartment for his daughter to discover. Steven picked out and purchased a dolly and a castle, and he found a couple of imitation Louis Vuitton purses so the pair of pals could play dress-up together.

Steven got a job, two jobs — one doing maintenance and janitorial work at The Bridge House in the morning, then working the afternoon shift at a Stoney Creek factory.

His pillowcase was beginning to bulge, almost to the brim. Steven had some money — an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work — a home, food on the table and the self-respect and self-esteem that comes with being a productive member of society.

“I will be grateful for (Bridge House) and (executive director) James (Bowick) for the rest of my life,” said Steve. “I can never repay what they did for me, but I am going to try.

“…The prison system asks you where you want to go, puts you in a van, takes you to the GO station and gives you a ticket. That’s it.”

•••

Steven, 44, was incarcerated for seven long months in 2011. He spent five months in an Ottawa prison, then was moved to Maplehurst in Milton. Before landing in a cement cell, Steven’s life was on an upswing. He had blissfully welcomed his first child into the world. He had a good job, plenty of money, a fast car, a good relationship with his baby’s mother and a planned relocation to Ottawa.

Steven was scouting out the best new home in the best Ottawa neighbourhood when his life came crashing to an  instantaneous halt. He had stopped for gas at a station in Morristown; somebody must have smelled the alcohol. Steven was pulled over not more than five minutes after leaving the station. He was charged with driving under the influence. It was his fourth offence.

Steven lost his job, his home, the love of his baby’s mother and some respect among his family members and friends.

“I fell into the trap. Work, work, work and make money and have the best of everything, live in the best apartment in the best neighbourhood,” said Steven. “I fell victim to the rat race, the accumulation of things and monetary success. I was never happy… I always wanted more, more, more.”

Four months into his lonely prison sentence, Steven’s life took a drastic turn, changed forever actually, when a couple of prison missionaries visited.

“They (the missionaries) performed the laying of the hands, and what I experienced was something I had never experienced or felt before,” said Steven. “There was this whole sense of warmth, and I was crying uncontrollably, but I felt then that a weight was lifted off me and I felt a real sense of rejuvenation.”

•••

Along with filling his own pillowcase with productive, worthwhile endeavours since his release from prison Steven has dedicated himself to serving and helping others. No payment required; nothing wanted nor requested in return.

On one of his excursions to assist executive director Bowick raise the profile of The Bridge House, Steven found comfort, guidance and inspiration through New City Church in downtown Hamilton.

He has been an official member and active parishioner for more than two years. Steven does pretty much whatever is asked of him. He has participated and led small group ministries, packed 1,400 backpacks for inner city school children and volunteered to cook dinner — 150 hamburgers — at Helping Hands, a street ministry on Barton Street.

“Doing stuff for others without expecting anything in return makes me feel like a better person,” said Steven.

There have been challenges and a few setbacks since the day Steven left the barred cell that was his home for seven months.

In February he broke his pelvis while helping a friend clear waste. Just the day before, Steven had been contacted about a job in his previous line of work.

But hopes for the dream job were dashed when he was forced to spend 22 days in hospital, trying to recover from the injury.

Steven, however, has faith. He knows there is a greater power guiding what goes in and out of his pillowcase.

“God put me in one of the worst places to teach me it doesn’t matter where you live and what you have, it’s what you make of it.”

At a glance

The mission of The Bridge is to promote and enable healing and reconciliation of those in the community affected by crime ó victims, families and offenders.

The goal is to help detainees, former detainees and their families achieve a more positive lifestyle and enable them to become contributing members of society.

Staff and volunteers  focus on coping and relational skills, stress management, dealing with change effectively, communication skills, self-esteem development and emotional needs.

Bridge provides discharge planning for all those returning from correctional facilities and prisons to the Hamilton area, servicing about 350 people in the past year with practical and rehabilitation referrals.

Transitional housing is offered for up to six men who have just been released from incarceration, primarily on charges involving a penalty of under two years. Bridge House has been renovated and expanded many times over the years, and staff and volunteers are hoping to renovate again in the next few years.

Clients living at Bridge House are required to develop a reintegration plan. Together, the client and staff develop a short-term plan to  begin the progress toward the goals and rebuild their lives in the community. Case management involves both group and one-on-one support opportunities.

Programs include Dinner and Discussion, the Morning Start breakfast program, an art program, Menís Den for those wrestling with addiction and a family support group that provides a safe atmosphere for  families affected by  incarceration. For more information, visit www.hamilton-bridge.ca or call 905-522-0283.

Fundraiser

A Wingfest to help raise money for the operation of  The Bridge House is planned for June 11 at the Royal Canadian Legion, 280 King St. W. in Dundas from 4-8 p.m.

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