Hank Dixon, Director of Open Circle, is a friendly guy who welcomed me with a firm handshake and a smile, asking, “Where do I know you from? I feel like I know you from somewhere…” The greeting was appreciated, as I had my usual pre-interview nerves, and I suggested it might be because he’s worked with my dad.
“Oh, no, I think your dad has a few pounds on you. Maybe somewhere else…” Hank proceeded to introduce me to some of the other people who work at Initiatives for Just Communities as though I was family, despite the fact that I’d only spoken to him once via email.
We sat in his small office, furnished with what Hank described as, “second hand… but, you know, nice second hand,” furniture from downstairs that would have otherwise gone to the Salvation Army. Open Circle runs on a very tight budget. It seems its stock and trade isn’t the easiest thing to raise money for. “Try to sell people on the idea that they should support people who go to jail… That’s not an easy sell. It’s a real struggle in our society.”
“These aren’t boy scouts you’re going to visit. Some of them have done pretty terrible things in their lives.”
Open Circle is a non-profit organization that matches volunteers with inmates at Manitoba prisons to foster relationships, which isn’t easy even when volunteers and funds are available. “These aren’t boy scouts you’re going to visit. Some of them have done pretty terrible things in their lives. Some people want to change, but they don’t know what the path is. Some people are just lonely and want someone to talk with.”
The relationships that volunteers build with prisoners help them acclimate to society when they get out, as well as navigate the difficult waters of being in prison — an immensely lonely place. The connections benefit not only the prisoners, but the volunteers as well. “You develop some pretty good friendships over the years… people enrich each other, and that’s really what we’re trying to do here.”
By this point, a few things had struck me about Hank. Not only has he worked extensively with inmates through Open Circle, but previous to that he served as a chaplain at a number of prisons throughout Canada. In his words, “I think one of the things that has consistently attracted me to this work… [is the ability to help] what society looks at as waste. To be a part of that, and to be able to find redemption, is something I’d like to carry on.”
He seems like the quintessential pastor type. The kind of guy you’re not sure you could ever be, but damn it, you’re glad there are folks like him around.
“To be a part of that, and to be able to find redemption, is something I’d like to carry on.”
The thing about Hank, though, is that he was a lifer too. He’s been an addict. He went to prison for second degree murder when he was nineteen. It would have been equally hard, all those years ago, to find money to put towards helping him.
The perfect ending to this story is that Hank now runs an organization that exemplifies the kind of change he himself went through. “We’re reminding people that lives are redeemable. There’s always hope.”
For more information about Open Circle, visit their website: http://www.initiativesjc.org/wpblog/open-circle/
Thanks to Hank Dixon for being my interview subject and sharing his story.