Legacy of Sister Elaine MacInnes | Cathy Manuel

By Cathy Manuel ·

Law360 Canada (July 9, 2024, 1:22 PM EDT) --
Cathy Manuel
What do Robin Williams, Nina Simone and Sister Elaine MacInnes have in common? They are all alumni of the Julliard School in New York who used their respective talents and platforms to advocate for social change and personal growth, each in their own unique way.

Williams, the acclaimed actor and comedian, was known for his generosity and efforts in various humanitarian causes. Simone, the legendary singer, songwriter and pianist, was a prominent civil rights activist. Sister Elaine, the lesser known of the three, was a Catholic nun and Zen master who dedicated much of her life to teaching meditation to inmates on three different continents and starting a Canadian charity called Freeing the Human Spirit.

In a world often consumed by the punitive aspects of the criminal justice system, Freeing the Human Spirit (FTHS) offers a beacon of hope, emphasizing rehabilitation and personal growth for incarcerated individuals. Every day, 35,000 Canadians wake up in a prison cell and FTHS wants to help inmates manage stress, reduce aggression and foster a sense of community and self-worth, through yoga and meditation. These programs are not just about physical exercise but about unlocking the human potential that exists within every individual, regardless of their past. Inmates who participate in such programs often experience improved post-release outcomes and lower rates of reoffending. By focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment, Freeing the Human Spirit is helping to create safer communities and more hopeful futures.

Founded in 2003 by Sister Elaine MacInnes, FTHS was envisioned to provide incarcerated people with the tools for growth and emotional healing, emphasizing that transformation is possible, even within the confines of a prison cell. She believed that we are all doing time, imprisoned by blocks and hangups, tensions and pain, and through yoga and meditation, there is a way to help us become stiller, steadier, calmer, healthier and feel better about ourselves.

Today FTHS has 39 volunteers and is operational in six prisons in Ontario with a growing interest throughout the country. The charity continues to build on Sister Elaine’s belief that yoga and meditation are powerful, universally accessible tools to help individuals overcome internal barriers and stress, fostering inner peace and self-awareness. By creating an environment within prisons for these practices, the charity aims to facilitate lasting positive change in the lives of incarcerated individuals.

In June, the inaugural Sister Elaine MacInnes Community Impact Award was launched. The award aims to honour the Catholic nun and Zen master who dedicated her life to promoting healing and transformation through music and meditation. Sister Elaine’s profound impact is exemplified in the words of Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons, who once said, “Sister Elaine’s work is a testament to the transformative power of meditation and the human spirit’s capacity for resilience and growth.” This annual award recognizes outstanding yoga and meditation instructors across Canada who demonstrate exceptional commitment, innovation and impact in their fields. The establishment of this award not only pays homage to an extraordinary individual but also strengthens our ability to continue her vital work with inmates. The award will raise awareness, making it easier for FTHS to recruit volunteers and funding, ensuring her memory and legacy continue to inspire others. This award serves as both a tribute to Sister Elaine’s legacy and an inspiration for others to continue her work.

The recipient of the award is an individual who has demonstrated exceptional commitment to transforming lives through innovation and compassion. This outstanding person is a change-maker who shares the tools of yoga and meditation in impactful ways. Someone who is an innovative community leader and dedicated to breaking down barriers, regardless of societal status, to ensure that everyone can benefit from these practices.

Nominations are now open and the organizing committee is hoping to receive a broad range of nominations from across the country. The nomination period closes on Sept. 11. The winner will be announced on Sept. 19 and will receive $500 plus an in-kind bonus. By showcasing the works of award recipients and the impact of yoga and meditation, FTHS aims to promote its benefits to all, particularly to vulnerable populations. This award will also highlight Freeing the Human Spirit’s mission and encourage more individuals to get involved as volunteers or donors. To nominate someone you know, visit freeingthehumanspirit.com/awards.

Freeing the Human Spirit relies on the generosity of volunteers, donors and sponsors to continue its impactful work. There are several ways that individuals and organizations can get involved. The organization needs a Rolodex of qualified yoga and meditation facilitators across the country and those to lead the team at each institution. Every charity needs those who notice the importance of the work being done and contribute their time, talent and treasure. Of course, in today’s age of social media, having many people spread the word about the important work of FTHS is another powerful way to contribute.

The Sister Elaine MacInnes Award offers a unique opportunity for organizations to contribute to a meaningful cause. Sponsorship of the award not only provides crucial funding for Freeing the Human Spirit’s programs but also aligns sponsors with a powerful movement toward rehabilitation and social justice. To learn more about sponsorship or other ways to contribute financially visit freeingthehumanspirit.com/donate.

In a world where the scales of justice often tip towards retribution, Sister Elaine MacInnes stood as a luminous testament to the power of rehabilitation and personal transformation. Through Freeing the Human Spirit, this award celebrates those who bring hope and healing to others using the same tenacity and tools of yoga and meditation.

Cathy Manuel is the executive director of Freeing the Human Spirit. She can be reached on LinkedIn, Facebook or cathy@freeingthehumanspirit.com.

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