GoFundMe started to help provide backpacks and essential items to individuals who are leaving the Okanagan Correctional Centre

Backpacks for ex-cons

A woman working in the nonprofit sector that helps with outreach work to correctional centres has started a GoFundMe to provide ex-convicts with backpacks and basic necessities when they leave.

Yvonne Kaiser was upset to see that recently released convicts left the jail with all their items in a plastic garbage bag and has started raising money towards buying backpacks and essentials items for individuals who are leaving custody.

“I was working for a nonprofit organization doing outreach work in the jail and was approached by an officer that said 'We've got these guys they're leaving with plastic bags is there anything that you can do,'” she explained. 

“What can we do so we're not dehumanizing people because what do I put in garbage bags? I put my garbage in it."

When inmates leave a federal institution, they're generally given a duffel bag, but according to Kaiser, provincially that doesn't happen.

“It's a clear garbage bag just on display for everybody...That's where the dumping of all their possessions, letters, documents, pictures of their family, everything gets dumped into it.

“This is supposed to be a happy day for them, they're done with their sentence, they're  moving on with their lives, it's a new chapter and instead it was just utter hopelessness.”

So, after researching for ideas and answers, Kaiser found one backpack program in Canada that was running successfully. The Elizabeth Fry Society launched the Positive Release program which gives backpacks filled with toiletries and essential items to women as they get out of the Central Nova Correctional Facility in Dartmouth. 

“I had the idea in my brain, I just didn't know where to start and they gave me a really good jumping off point.”

She added that their help was really monumental and when she reached out to them they sent all their information and resources to help get started. 

“It doesn't seem like that much to give them a backpack and some hygiene products... but here's some stuff to get you started and I think that's the biggest thing. Maybe that's just the hope that somebody needs to be like, 'I'm worth something.'”

But the organization Kaiser worked with didn't have funding available to move forward with her idea. So, the first ten bags she built came from her campaigning on Facebook to friends and family to help donate. 

“It got an amazing response, one of the guys cried when he left with it. The response from the staff was really good as well.”

Currently the focus is on helping those at the Okanagan Correctional Centre, setting them up when they are first released. 

“I think the best thing that it does is humanize people, letting them know here's a gift from your community to welcome you back. I think that's a huge thing.”

Kaiser stocks up the backpacks with seasonal items like toques, socks, emergency blankets, and hygiene products. There's also water, protein bars and sugary snacks. 

“I thought we can at least give them a few items, just a little bit of stuff to help them out, then at least they have somewhere to start.” 

The bags include resource guides as well.

“I really have a passion for humanizing people that are coming out of the justice system so as a society we're cutting back on stigmatizing them.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kaiser saw more of the resources and centres that help them get back on their feet shut down or not take in more clients. 

“Their past just travels with them and I'm really of the belief that none of us should walk through life being judged by our worst action, our worst day and having that be the only thing that people see about us.” 

After the first round of backpacks, Kaiser kept and still is petitioning the cause to non-profits, but got tired of waiting for funding. That's when she went forward with the GoFundMe on Monday. 

“I'm really just grateful for everything that's happened in the last four days. I'm blown away by people, their compassion,” Kaiser said.

The bags cost around $30 in total with all supplies.

“If we can cut down on costs and there's organizations or people are willing to donate items instead of money, fantastic.”

She was worried about being able to handle the negativity that came along with it.

“It's a hard field to work in and you get a lot of negative feedback from people. ‘Why do you want to help these people? They've done bad things’...

“The way the Canadian justice system is set up is your punishment is going to jail. That is your payment back to society is the sentence given to you by the judge. All of the other stigma that comes with it, that should not exist.”

Right now it's just Kaiser working on the project but she’s committed to seeing it through.

“This isn't going anywhere, as long as people are willing to help me I will keep putting these backpacks together...the end goal is to have a continual program where we have a stream of backpacks that are available to the Okanagan Correctional Centre and hopefully we can see it happen provincially.”

Find more information and updates on the project on the Second Chance Backpack's Facebook page. 

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