For years I have been intrigued by the concept of restorative justice. My first encounter with this concept came from the movie Dead Man Walking, in which a convicted murderer on death row (Sean Penn) approaches his final days and a nun (Susan Sarandon) leads him to recognize the brutality in his actions and the need to confess his wrongdoings and share his regret with the victims’ families for the loss that he caused.
I vividly remember watching this as a young adult, and sensing the power that the families of the victims had to forgive this man. The thing that struck me most was the freedom and peace felt by the victims who were open to the possibility of reconciliation, juxtaposed with the anguish and torment of the victims who sought revenge.
Years (and many other stories of restoration) later, I now find myself in a position of leadership of a school whose vision seeks to “equip children for Christlike service in community.” Perhaps you can see the endless opportunity for restorative practices when a vision statement such as this one is right before your eyes each and every day. At the beginning of the 2008–09 school year, our staff set out to put restoration into practice.
We began working collaboratively on developing school-wide “Restorative Living Projects.” RLP’s are monthly service projects in which students serve in the community. Community in this case is used in the broad sense as it does not simply refer to the school community or our community of Powell River, but it extends to the province of British Columbia, our entire nation, and the world. While at first glance these projects might appear like any other service project a school might participate in, our intentional approach to the teaching process is what sets the RLP’s apart. Furthermore, we know that God’s restorative purpose begins with the restorative work that he does in each and every one of us.
Through weekly chapels, daily devotional activities, and various other learning times, we strive to make each month’s RLP personal for every student. We call this component our pre–service learning. A project concludes with a post-service-learning response in which students share personal experiences through their writing, art, or other creative projects that are often displayed on our Restorative Living bulletin board.
One of the most interesting things we have found since we began the RLP’s is that many activities that were once routine parts of our yearly timetable have now become so much more meaningful to students, teachers, and members of the various communities with which we come into contact. Prior to introducing Restorative Living Projects, many of these activities carried little meaning for students and did not always build relationships between our students and the community.
Take for example the Terry Fox Run. Nationwide, students and communities participate in this activity to raise funds for cancer research. In the past we found that if students were not directly affected by this devastating disease, they did not really sense the importance of raising money for it. All students would participate in the run, but only small amounts of money were raised. Furthermore, the memory that students were often left with was how great it was to have an afternoon off from regular school activities.
We have continued to complete the Terry Fox Run, but in a very different way. We started by reading the story of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25:31–46. We discussed whom Jesus was referring to when he said “the least of these.” Then we were privileged to have two cancer survivors speak to us about how God has used them to minister to others in spite of their illness. After the guests shared, the students were encouraged to share stories of people they know who have had cancer or currently are battling it. Our guests finished their time by praying with children for their friends and loved ones with cancer. After this initial chapel, our teachers spent time in the classroom teaching about words of hope that students can offer to those going through cancer. Over the next couple of weeks, students collected coins for cancer and ran with purpose and passion on the day of the run. In the end, each student created a poster or collage that gave expression to the hope that they had learned about. These were compiled into a “hope album,” which was donated to the oncology ward at our local hospital to encourage the people in treatment there.
On another occasion, our monthly RLP dealt with the topic of being a blessing to people in our community of Powell River. We began by discussing and sharing examples of what it meant to bless someone with words of encouragement. Students went on to make Christmas crackers, which they filled with candies and a handwritten blessing. Our students made over two hundred of these to be given out at a community dinner that was offered at one of the local churches. After the dinner, we heard several reports of people who had truly been blessed through this. One story in particular stood out above the rest. A man who had been given a few months to live as a result of a brain tumor happened to receive a cracker with this message: “May God grant you many years of life.” More than a year later, this man is still with us and is recovering more each day. He continues to carry the small handwritten note in his pocket and his story has in turn been a blessing to many others.
Another project involved students completing work projects for their parents in exchange for earning an agreed-upon dollar amount that then went towards purchasing chickens for people in developing nations. For the post–service project, students cut out and coloured paper chickens to symbolically represent what they were able to purchase. These paper chickens were then posted on a bulletin board chicken coop so they could see what their hard work had accomplished.
Yet another project involved staff and students randomly selecting the name of a person in the school to whom they would be a secret servant. Each one then prayed for their person during the month, observing them closely so that once a week they could write them an encouraging “warm fuzzy.” The “warm fuzzy” note was then posted on the Restorative Living bulletin board so the person could read it and be encouraged. In the culminating project, students made a card that they hand-delivered to identify themselves as the person’s secret servant. Staff and students alike were thrilled with the weekly “warm fuzzies” and enjoyed being able to see their own “warm fuzzies” displayed for all to see. They especially enjoyed watching the reaction of the person they had encouraged. It was often difficult to drag students away from the bulletin board in order to begin class. The amount of blessing that the school community felt through this project was amazing and enabled us to experience restoration on a grand scale.
Many more RLP’s have been completed and we continue to brainstorm ideas for new projects and new ways to make them intentional. Teachers value the collaborative time spent in staff meetings coming up with a meaningful and creative project for the upcoming month. Even though the projects were intended to teach restorative living to our students, the act of being creative, collaborative, and intentional in our teaching has served to bring us all closer to an understanding of God’s restoration.
To find out more details about the projects we have completed please feel free to visit our website www.prcschool.net and click on the “Living Vision” tab.