My impressions of prison come mainly from American movies. Meanwhile, prison shapes the daily reality of close to 9,000 New Zealanders… and their kids. It’s huge. I get uncomfortable driving through Rolleston. As a member of this society I am a complicit, if ignorant, part of this system. There are real people stuck behind those fences. We stop to buy chips and drive on.
Twenty years ago, Verna McFelin was part of a group of women with family members in prison. She noticed that prisoners struggled to maintain relationships with their families in the austere visiting environment. She told me ‘to sit in the visitor’s room and have conversation for two hours you pretty much need counseling skills’. Those relationships are the crucial ties to the outside world and hope for a meaningful life in the future.
Also, it is estimated that 23, 000 NZ kids currently have a parent in prison
These kids are seven times more likely to wind up in prison themselves.
Verna is now founder, manager and self-confessed workaholic at Pillars, who help out prisoners and their whanau with home based family support, mentoring for kids of prisoners, and a free helpline. They also advocate for policy changes around parliament that will help the families of prisoners. Pillars has dealt with 7,000 families in their 20 years. Sometimes family members of prisoners come up to thank Verna in the street. And Pillars heard recently that a kid who they had mentored years before, who thought himself destined to offend, has become a chef. There were celebrations in the office that day.
Verna is a Christian and her work with Pillars is very much ‘a journey of faith’. My favorite thing she said about this was ‘he’s very into families, God is.’ Verna’s God sounds pretty switched on.
‘We don’t survive without volunteers’
Pillars is currently looking for male 18+ volunteers to mentor kids of prisoners. This involves committing to one year, contact once a week, and the chance to change someone’s world for the better. They are also looking for a group to help out with Children of Prisoners week in September; an event to raise awareness and funds.
Contact Verna: firstname.lastname@example.org
The pillars plug-for-volunteers video says:
Making a difference doesn’t take a genius, and it doesn’t take a saint
All it takes is a little time and love, and you
This is comforting, because I want to make a differnce but am not a genius or a saint. It’s also discomforting, because it means I have no excuse. Hmmmm.