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Volunteer crews transform former youth jail into healing home

Turning the region’s former youth detention centre into a healing place for adults takes creativity, planning and plenty of volunteers.
Shauna Smith, centre, John Weir, left, and Tony Joe work on assembling the bunk beds in one of the rooms.

Turning the region’s former youth detention centre into a healing place for adults takes creativity, planning and plenty of volunteers.

At least 80 volunteers were at the Talcott Road site in View Royal on Saturday, taking on tasks ranging from technical engineering to painting to assembling bunk beds.

“We’re trying to transform a jail into a home,” said Tracie Clayton, executive director of HeroWork, the community organization behind the project.

Volunteer Cheryl Rowley, who has a background in interior design, was overseeing workers in the site’s main residential section.

“I’ve been volunteering with HeroWork for going on five years,” said Rowley, who has also served on the HeroWork board. “It makes me feel good and I love being on a job site. It’s right in my wheelhouse, it’s what I love to do.

“At this point in my life, retired, being able to take the opportunity to give back has been really valuable and important to me.”

Vance Smith, of RJC Engineers, said there are several reasons why he volunteers for HeroWork.

“You know what, this is the best of people that we see here,” he said. “The people that are on this site are people that are giving their time and you see the best of our community.

“You learn from each other. There’s a camaraderie about our projects that you don’t find on any other job site.”

The maximum capacity of the newly created, all-male facility, operated by Our Place, will be 100. “We’re actually adding capacity for 50 people right now,” Clayton said.

Peer-to-peer counselling is a key component of the two-year program being established, she said. “The whole concept is that they’re mentoring each other.”

Every resident has a job, such as cleaning, maintenance or cooking, she said.

The program is based on a model that has succeeded in Italy and Portugal. “This is the first one of its kind in North America,” Clayton said.

Sixteen men are already in residence in a section away from the construction.

Above and beyond HeroWork’s plan, there will be a healing garden in the centre of the complex, thanks to a donation of about $750,000 by John McEown. Also in the works is a sweat lodge, which ties in with HeroWork building a pavilion that resembles a longhouse, Clayton said.

“About 30 per cent of the folks that come here are of Indigenous background, so we’re trying to incorporate some of the those elements,” she said.

The men who live at the facility will be coming from situations such as incarceration, homelessness and addiction “so they’re all very marginalized people,” Clayton said.

“Some of the these people have never had a home before.”

Former cells are being converted into two-person “sleeping suites,” Clayton said, and amenities are being added. “We’ve put in an arts-and-crafts area, we’ve doubled the size of the dining room and we’ve added a food-production area so people can grow their own food,” Clayton said.

“Ultimately, they’re going to have a chicken coop and bee production, so they can start building enterprise around what they’re doing.”

Our Place expects that will lead to a public café just outside the facility within a few years, she said.

Overall, HeroWork is adding about $650,000 worth of value to the site, she said.

“That’s a retail valuation, but because we’re doing it we do it for about a third of that or less,” Clayton said.

“We have donated labour, in-kind supplies.

“We have somewhere around 120 different businesses — people like McLaren, who donated $30,000 worth of lighting.”

Previous renovation projects completed by HeroWork have helped the Beacon Community Society and the Quadra Village Community Centre, along with two that have benefited the Mustard Seed Street Church.

One Mustard Seed project brought a commercial kitchen to a Viewfield Road warehouse, creating the Food Security Distribution Centre, which collects 1.8 kilograms of food “rescued” from grocery stores every day.

In all cases, volunteers cover 98 per cent of HeroWork’s needs.