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Interview: I begged God to help me

Garry Glowacki is the executive director of The Bridge, a prison ministry in Brampton that serves the Greater Toronto Area and beyond.

We provide unique, hands-on services to a distinct, at-risk, high-needs segment of society – prisoners. For 40 years we have facilitated a weekly spiritual support group within the Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton. The group is one of the best attended and most popular institutional gatherings. Its weekly attendance averages 70 prisoners and 12 volunteers. Most importantly, we provide hands-on reintegration assistance to men returning to the community.

Garry Glowacki outside The Bridge in Brampton
Garry Glowacki outside The Bridge in Brampton. Photo by Michael Hudson

Our biggest accomplishment has been the opening of our community centre in downtown Brampton and the development of “Bridge to Work,” an employment readiness program for prisoners returning to Peel Region. Through our support and our community partners, 65 per cent of the men we have worked with this year are out of the shelter system and living in suitable housing. They are off welfare, relatively drug- and alcohol-free, and working within two to three months. It’s a powerful story of lives restored. We have also been active in a number of community projects, including creating murals for the United Way, Moore’s Suit Drive, World Homelessness Day and the Scotiabank Marathon.

The best part of my job is seeing men who had previously been written off as the “least of us” discover their own humanity and worth and becoming both the men they had hoped they could be and that God had intended them to be. The worst part is visiting men I had worked with in penitentiaries or, sadly, going to their funerals.

The one thing I’d like people to know about prisoners is that they are people too: they are our brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers and, but for the grace of God, we are not in jail with them. It’s important to understand that most people in jail are getting out at some point and they deserve the chance to work hard and to prove themselves.

In 1994, I had a secure and well-paying city job but was in the early stages of sobriety and felt unfulfilled. Because of my personal connections to Daisy Dunlop, the founder of The Bridge, I began as a volunteer but eventually became employed as the community worker here. I accepted the position for half the money I had been earning. I gave up a pension plan and health benefits for the chance to be challenged, possibly fulfilled, hopefully to make a difference, to honour my own sobriety and, frankly, to make amends for all the damage and hurt my previous life caused.

I was born on Dec. 24 in Toronto to Ukrainian parents. Because of my age, I entered public school early – at age 4 – and later skipped Grade 5, so I was young and immature when I entered high school at 12. I was always awkward and suffered from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), so I was always in trouble. I think that continues to today. When I finally got somewhat grounded, I was married, had a beautiful daughter, acquired a horticulture diploma and was a very good landscaper for many years.

My faith journey began at a young age and was confusing and frightening from the beginning. My Mom used to take me to the local Ukrainian Catholic Church, where I attended catechism and Ukrainian classes. I eventually served as an altar boy, but because I didn’t speak Ukrainian very well I didn’t really understand the Mass. While my Mom dragged me to church, my father always asked me what lies the priests had told me when I returned home. Hence my initial confusion. I was also very afraid because my Dad was violently abusive to both my Mom and I. I learned to lie and cheat in order to survive my home life, although I felt I was sinning.

At 12 I entered an all-boys Ukrainian Catholic high school. Because of the abuse at home, my immaturity and my lack of focus, school life was troubled. I acted out and received the strap so many times that eventually I felt God being beat out of me and that I was not worth saving or protecting. My Dad threw me out of the house at 15 and I became a frightened, confused and angry young street kid, which in the 1960s was a dangerous place for a young kid. Although my mother’s priest tried to reach out to me, I felt so alone, angry and in a dark place that I was very hard to reach.

At 16, I found drugs. Heroin became my solution to all my emotional, mental and spiritual troubles; I had a new God. As my addiction and drug lifestyle slowly took over my life, my spirit and soul darkened. I couldn’t see any way out and I couldn’t even pray. I had been married to a wonderful woman who didn’t understand the depth of my sickness; she suffered greatly trying to stand by me in the hell of my addiction. My life was that of a typical drug addict – lying, cheating, stealing, cursing a God who I couldn’t believe in for my miserable life and the years spent in and out of mental institutions, re-hab centres and prisons.

Finally at 41 years of age, scarred and wounded from years of abuse and hard-core drug and alcohol use, and not wanting to live like that anymore, I fell to my knees and begged a God I was ashamed to be in front of to please help me. I have not used drugs or alcohol since shortly after that weeping, slobbering and humiliating ask.

My faith in God had taken many painful, confusing and angry paths to get to the strong, devoted and faithful place I am in now. I have no doubt that God saved my life, nor do I doubt that it is now my calling to walk with men like me as they struggle through their own hells and fight with their spiritual demons.

While my body is battered and bruised for many reasons, the pain is less, the dark memories have faded and now I have a life that is blessed with amazing people, pictures on all my walls from my many travels and an interesting but sometime draining job. More importantly, although I’ll never be rich, I can honestly say that I’m a good man, a good father and son, and that I will be a great grandfather. I have all I need and I’m able to pass my blessings on to those in need through prayer but mainly through well intentioned good works.

What would I like to be doing five years from now? I’ll be retired by then, and I’d like to be proud that I left The Bridge in a good place. I’d like to be doing something worthwhile and still contributing to the world, possibly in another country. Most importantly, I want to be the best darned grandfather ever!

Matthew is my favourite Gospel, as I believe he preaches valuing an internal spiritual transformation. The passage that most speaks to me is Matthew 25: 31-46, as it speaks directly to meeting the needs of the hungry, sick, and imprisoned. I have been all of those and know the depth and pain of those simple needs. I also know that the passage requires simple, caring and non-judgmental actions that usually get my hands dirty and that sometimes break but strengthen my heart.