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Stories of hope

‘Sport paves the way for open dialogue’

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It’s 7am on a Saturday morning. Most of us are beginning to slowly stir from sleep, thankful for the weekend respite from work. But along the Princess Highway, ten men are making their weekly drive to tackle, shove, dribble, and sweat alongside several inmates from Barwon Maximum Security Prison.

Oscar Correa, heads up SLAM, the Prison Fellowship Victoria sport ministry, and has been dutifully making this trip for eight years. Along with his team of sporting enthusiasts, he’s adamant it’s worth every lost hour of sleep.

‘The [prisoners] have a lot of respect for us because they see that we have come to prisons and that were genuine,’ said Oscar. ‘Sport also paves the way for open dialogue. As you play it breaks down the barrier… a lot of coordinators invite us to lunch with prisoners and that’s the opportunity to share intimately.’

The sporting teams visit 16 prisons and juvenile centres with some return trips taking up to four hours. And when they finally make it onto the court, they can play up to six gruelling games. But while athletic prowess is a bonus, it’s not a priority. ‘The focus has shifted from volunteers that are good at sport, to their heart for service,’ says Oscar. ‘I always check where their [volunteers] hearts
are at… I tell them that everybody has a testimony to share, even churchgoers. It just depends how
you look at it.’

Oscar’s own story begins in Chile, with sport intricately weaved through it. In 1975, 7-year-old Oscar and his family arrive in Australia as political refugees. The disturbing events resulting from General Pinochet’s military coup are still etched in his mind. ‘I remember playing in the backyard… the military came and my dad hid in an old tub. They asked me whether my dad was playing hide and seek, I said yes. I unwittingly dobbed my dad in and later I felt really guilty for that,’ says Oscar. It would be another year before he would see his father, eventually tracking him down in an overcrowded, brutal prison.

After his release, Oscar simply remembers him as ‘very, very skinny…’ Almost everything else had has been ‘blocked out’. Australian doctors believe these incidents shocked Oscar, severely complicating his dyslexia – and his life.

Dyslexia is a learning disability jumbling the brain’s ability to decipher graphic symbols. ‘I had no understanding of letters in the alphabet, of putting words together… I would remember one day and next I couldn’t,’ says Oscar. At school it made him the object of ridicule, casting him out all over again. But his natural ability in virtually all sports salvaged some level of respect, earning him the highest distinction.

And at a time when ethnic rivalry was rife – his older sister joined a gang which deterred him from ‘doing silly things’. ‘Once I got involved in stealing but I was never charged, which I think would have made things worse,’ he says. In fact it probably would’ve been tragic. Low levels of literacy are extraordinarily high in prisons. Whether it’s due to bad choices or circumstance, the results are the same – the feeling of ‘looking stupid and a loser’.

The shift toward destructive behaviour becomes an immediate fix for misplaced anger and gains respect from peers. But once inside, this cycle keeps repeating. By year 9, professionals and teachers handed Oscar their final scathing assessment: ‘They said it very clearly, you’ll never be able to read and write… yet at the end of the next year, the impossible happened. I remember it very clearly. I was at church, the songs came up and all of a sudden I was able to read them for the first time…I could connect the vowels
with the consonants. It was big. I feel it was like a miracle,’ says Oscar, as if reliving the moment in his mind. ‘So I grabbed books and started reading for the first time.’

The Outsiders was a book he would read often. The story of a 14-year-old boy struggling with right and
wrong in a society which he believes considers him an outcast, resonated deep with Oscar’s own struggle and the lies resorted to for gaining acceptance. ‘For example, I was asked: ‘Do you play
cricket?’ I would say ‘Yeah, yeah, I play,’ but I had no idea what it was. Because I was good at sport I would pick it up straight away.’ He longed to be free from that insecurity. It was Oscar’s second miracle. ‘I asked God to forgive me of my lies and exaggerations… I remember it (forgiveness) became very real and that God was in my heart,’ recalls Oscar. ‘Because I was an outcast most of my life – I grew up with a real sense for them. Although I’m not that person now, I really have a connection with these people. I can relate to them.’

Today, after a game or six with inmates, he confidently shares his simple 2 minute message: ‘Close your eyes and remember back to school. They say they are the best days of your life, enjoyable, fun with mates. Now open your eyes. Were they like that for you? For me they were the worst days of my life…’ But that’s just the introduction; the middle is still being written – which includes a Victorian Government Award for
Outstanding Achievement – and the ending might be some time away.

In wrapping up our interview, Iask Oscar if he has any closing remarks. He does. ‘Don’t ever underestimate what God can do. He loves using the impossible to make things possible,’ says Oscar, smiling. He would know.

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