She’s spent years working as a probation and parole officer, followed by years of training others to follow in her footsteps, but now Michelle Swaerdens is exactly where she wants to be.
The Community and Justices Services program professor, who began working at Niagara College in August 2011, said working at the college has been her goal all along.
“Everything I’ve done – from working the front lines, to training, to getting a Bachelor of Education in adult education as a second degree – has been to get me to this point,” she said. “I always thought it would be great to motivate students to work in the criminal justice field and become a part of the solution.”
Swaerdens began her career working the front lines. She has worked in a secure detention/custody facility, child welfare and as a probation officer supervising youth, as well as in adult provincial corrections as a parole and probation officer. That has given Swaerdens experience working with wide range of clientele, from those who have committed minor thefts to serious crimes, such as murder. While working with youth in conflict with the law can be challenging, she has found it extremely rewarding to see how she has made a difference in young peoples’ lives.
One of the best parts, for Swaerdens, is to see the great progress her former clients have made in their lives, often many years later.
“I’ve had kids who’ve gone to college or university and have done great things. They just had a little blip in life and needed some kind of direction,” she said. “If you can be a role model for someone and lead them on the right path, it’s a great feeling.”
After five years on the front lines, Swaerdens decided to focus her efforts on training. She has worked as senior staff development officer and team lead for both the probation officer and youth services officer basic training programs at the Ontario Correctional Services College. Later, she became a Youth Justice Trainer with the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, where she designed and delivered staff training to probation and service officers throughout Ontario.
Swaerdens spent another five years in the training field before joining NC in August. However, she will soon have a chance to reconnect with her former colleagues.
On February 7, she and her former team at the ministry will receive a Pinnacle Deputy Minster Award for Innovation and Creativity from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services at a ceremony in Toronto. The award recognizes her team’s achievement in developing training programs to support the ministry’s strategic priorities.
Swaerdens, who found out about the award in late January, was excited about the news.
“I’m proud of the team,” she said. “It was nice because when I told my students, they gave me a round of applause.”
Nowadays, Swaerdens spends her days working with students who aim to work in the criminal justice field – some as probation or parole officers, as she once was. While some hope to work in correctional facilities, others hope to work in halfway houses or shelters. Some are interested in working with adults, and others with youth. Whatever their aspirations, they share a common desire to help others and make a difference.
Swaerdens finds it rewarding to pass her experience and positive perspective on to her students. Her approach: It’s not about punishment, but about rehabilitation, reintegration. It’s about putting judgments aside and working with clients to help get them on the right track.
“Realistically, it could have been you, your brother, your sister, your mom, or your kids who needed me,” she said. “It could be anybody one day.”
InsideNC congratulates Michelle Swaerdens, professor of the Community and Justice Services program, for her Pinnacle Deputy Minister Award for Innovation and Creativity from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.