SMU students lead workshops for incarcerated women in Nova Scotia

SMU students who work with incarcerated women in Nova Scotia to help integrate them back into society are finishing the second phase of their project.

The student Enactus team at Saint Mary’s University has created a project called OPtions Nova. Jake Porteous, founding project manager, says they focus on empowering inmates at the Nova Institution for Women with the skills they will need to be successful once they are released from custody.

Porteous says that their goal is to give the inmates “a sense of entitlement, confidence and empowerment.”

Enactus Canada is a community of students focused on entrepreneurial action. There are Enactus groups all over Canada who start projects, such as OPtions Nova, in their communities.

The project had a pilot run last summer to see how well the women would react to university students working with them. After receiving feedback from the women and staff at the institution, the OPtions team reworked the structure of the program and started a new set of workshops 10 weeks ago. They will complete this first round next week.

The OPtions Nova team is made up of six SMU students. They travel to Truro every two weeks on Friday to run the program. The program runs for 12 weeks at a time, in three stages. The initial stage consists of workshops that teach basic business skills, financial literacy and employment skills.

When a woman involved with the project is released, she is paired up with a member of the OPtions team, who mentors her.

The women create their own co-operative business structure in the third stage of the project. Porteous says the goal is to encourage an entrepreneurial venture that the women can pursue once they are back in society.

One woman from the program has been released from custody so far, and she has had two job interviews since her release two weeks ago, Porteous says. The team has visited her in her community and has been helping her find a job.

Another woman from the program is being released from custody soon. Porteous says she has been reaccepted to the culinary arts program she was in before her incarceration.

Porteous is a third-year student majoring in criminology and sociology. He says his education in these areas have helped a lot with the project. “It’s given me a little bit of a deeper understanding of what these women have gone through.”

OPtions Nova co-manager Simon Gordon is another SMU student who has been influenced by the project. He says being a part of this project has made him rethink his career path. Initially, Gordon was working towards a career in marketing, but is now planning on going to law school.

Gordon is the business co-ordinator and focuses on the development of the workshops.

The second co-manager is Nicole MacPherson. She does community outreach and sets women up with their mentors.

Each member must be security trained by institution staff before entering and working one-on-one with the women. Porteous says the staff at the institution don’t want a huge number of students who can go in whenever they want, so they’re careful about who they train.

Porteous says they look for members who have initiative and show that they “will be there for the long run.”

Porteous says their long-term goal is to be inside the other five women’s penitentiaries in Canada over the next five years. He says they will likely involve other community organizations and Enactus teams from the cities these institutions are in.