By Christopher Gooding
SPRINGHILL - Hard work, determination and the spirit of fun is not just a promise participants make each year when the Springhill Institution hosts its annual Special Olympics. It's a goal volunteer staff and inmates strive towards as they have the opportunity to welcome Cumberland County's special needs community into the medium-security facility.
No other event brings the community together with the Springhill Institution more than the Special Olympics and participants and volunteers alike begin to look forward to seeing familiar faces and meeting new ones during the summer event. Jeff Earle, warden of the Springhill Institution, says the enthusiasm leading up to the day-long event is almost like Christmas, promoting partnerships and positive development for the 40 inmate-volunteers who successfully pass the screening.
"The offenders reveal a real sense of pride. It's a kinder side, a side we want to reach, when we put this on," Earle said. "It builds social consciousness. It's good."
The institution could easily find 100 inmate-volunteers, Earle says, but good intentions do not trump due-diligence. Filling the void, staff step up and work shoulder to shoulder with the inmate population making sure even stays on track and even stepping up to help keep the events rolling. Earle himself volunteered his time at the dunk tank, where Special Olympiads and the occasional inmate would hit a target and send the warden into a vat of cold water.
Corrections Canada staff Don Goguen prefers to take the day off work when the Special Olympics comes to the institution. His son, Scott, is an Olympian and there's nothing Goguen prefers more than to be by his son's side as Scott works towards his personal best. The opportunity staff and inmate create for the father and son, Goguen says, is more than commendable.
"It's a beautiful day," Goguen says. "All of them are having a blast and the offenders do such a great job. It's refreshing to see them in this environment. They really make everyone feel comfortable."
Being able to see the work behind the scenes before the Special Olympics begin, Goguen says the effort the inmate population puts into preparing to play host is in-depth, considerate and dedicated. The population also puts money into the event, Goguen noted, through an internal inmate committee.
"The effort they put into it is second-to-none and all for no gain. They get nothing for doing it."
There is a reward, though, the inmates say, is the sense of well-being that comes from making another persons' day brighter.
Mike Stacey, an inmate at Springhill Institution, is recognized by Special Olympians as an enthusiastic hockey player. Stacey puts his skill to goaltending at a ball-hockey competition. Stacey jeers at his opponents, shows off some fancy stick work and then throws a good-spirited temper tantrums as the Olympiads send shot after shot past Stacey's frame and into the net.
It's a lot of energy for a few hours of fun but, drenched in sweat and reaching for a bottle of water, Stacey says it's a fair deal.
"At the beginning of the day they had a pledge to do the best they can and I'm doing the same," Stacey said. "We love the guys coming here and changing the pace; the mood."
Wade Skiffington, also an inmate at Springhill Institution, echoed Stacey's sentiments. The grim reality is there is a darker side to prison and the Special Olympics has become a light for many offenders; a glimmer they can look towards and take pride in until planning for next year's event begins.
"For us long-term offenders it breaks up the monotony. When they come here you can feel like a human being. You don't feel like just an inmate," Skiffington says.
Volunteering, Skiffington says, is an opportunity people both inside and outside of prison don't take advantage of enough and its not until the opportunity becomes restricted that you realize the sense of well-being you were missing out on.
"We all say volunteering is a positive thing but most times, on the street-level, it's something you don't do. Stuff happens and you don't have the time. But volunteering is a positive thing."
Driving home that message was Don Goguen's son, Scott. The Olympian was giving it his all during the day, enthusiastically moving from one event to another. As he described his time at Springhill Institution for the Special Olympics, his smile was returned by the staff and inmates near him.
"My day has been to the extreme," Scott said. "Every event has been perfect."
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By Christopher Gooding