Jack Knox: A Christmas Fund donation from a prison inmate cheers the soul

A prison inmate just gave $7 to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund.

Of all the donations made so far this year, that one jumped out.

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Not just because of the source, but because of the amount. Seven dollars is very specific.

We don’t know who made the donation, or why, only that the cheque came from a trust account maintained on behalf of an unidentified inmate at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre on Wilkinson Road, better known as Wilkie. The Public Safety Ministry confirms the contribution came from a prisoner.

It’s not easy to earn money behind bars. Those who are locked up can take part in work programs — cleaning or painting, say — but doing so doesn’t pay much. “Inmates generally earn between $1.50 and $6.50 per work shift, depending on the level of responsibility, experience and skill required for the task,” said an email from the ministry. “In rare circumstances, they can make up to $9.50 a day.”

In other words, it can take a day, or several days, to earn $7.

We all have our preferred causes to support, and we all have a different capacity to support them. There’s a Bible story known as The Widow’s Mite in which Jesus, after watching a succession of rich people donate to the temple treasury, sees a woman add two small coins, or mites. He tells his disciples that, in fact, the impoverished widow had put in more than all the other donors put together, for while they had all made contributions from their surplus wealth, she had given all she had. For some people, seven bucks might as well be $700.

It makes you (or at least me) stop and think about who gives and who receives. Every year, I have to disabuse myself of my preconceptions about who benefits from the Times Colonist’s annual Christmas charity. I generally conjure up two images: either some sort of suitably grateful Dickensian waif (good), or someone less attractive, someone who has driven himself into the ditch (bad) and needs me — saint that I am — to tow him out.

I know I am not alone in building these stereotypes. In 2016, all of Victoria’s Christmas charities had trouble soliciting donations following the drawn-out saga of the tent city on the lawn of the Victoria courthouse, when the least sympathetic face of poverty became the dominant one. To much of the public, the encampment confirmed a view in which poverty was synonymous with entrenched anti-social behaviour: violence, theft, substance abuse, squalour.

This vision of incorrigible dysfunction alienated people, to the point that they kept their wallets closed, at least until the charities were able to paint a different picture.

The poor aren’t always visible. Low-paid workers struggling to feed their families don’t draw a second glance on the sidewalk. Nor do those who become unpaid, full-time care aides when their loves ones are blindsided by catastrophic illness. Nor do isolated seniors. Nor do children.

Every year, when the Christmas Fund money is distributed, we get the disturbing, frightening reminder that it’s often bad luck, not bad choices, that derails lives. Mental illness. A stroke. A brain injury. It could happen to any of us.

And now we are reminded that bad choices don’t have to define people, either. Somebody did something to land himself in Wilkie but now, while in a situation where most of us would be thinking of no one but ourselves, he has decided to do something for others this Christmas. Good for him, and time for me to park my preconceptions.

Money donated to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund is turned over to the Salvation Army and Mustard Seed Street Church, which distribute hampers and gift certificates to those who need it most.

how to donate

Please donate to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund. The fund assists individuals and families in need during the Christmas season.

How to donate

• Go to timescolonist.com/donate. That takes you to the Canada Helps website, which is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.

• Mail a cheque, payable to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund Society, to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 2621 Douglas St., Victoria, B.C. V8T 4M2.

• Use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday to Friday. Outside those hours, leave a message, we’ll call back.

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