“Most people try to avoid prison, and we’re trying to get in!”
30 years of volunteering with Prison Fellowship
“Most people try to avoid prison, and we’re trying to get in!” Mim laughs and she explains her passion for visiting inmates in prisons.
Mim and George Lee have been volunteering with Prison Fellowship for 30 years, visiting inmates and running soft toy sewing classes.
Eddie* was a very quiet man who kept to himself when he met Mim and George. Each Friday they run a class in the prison where men like Eddie could make teddy bears and soft cushions to send to their families on the outside. “I used to say to the men, you could get someone on the outside to buy a teddy at Kmart for $5. But something you have made yourself, that’s priceless,” says Mim.
A few years later, Mim and George received a letter from Eddie which read, “Thanks to you I’m now on speaking terms with my mum and my sister.” Mim understood that the small gesture of sending a teddy bear that Eddie had made himself had “helped repair the breach in the family”.
“We go in there to help people, but we have gained so much from it as well.”
When Mim was talking with an inmate’s mother, Laura* she asked, “Are you the teddy bear lady?” As soon as Mim said “Yes, that’s me,” Laura’s previously distant and self-protective demeanour changed and she said, “I’m so pleased to talk to you. My son was at a crossroads. Making the teddy bears was so helpful to him.”
For Mim and George, volunteering has also been rewarding in very unexpected ways. One of the most exciting things they see is prisoners flourishing after their release.
George laughs, “We must have done something right,” as they often receive invitations to parties and weddings of ex-prisoners. “It’s so nice to see these fellows that we knew (from their time in prison)” settle down with a family.
At Marty’s* wedding, George noticed that he and Mim were on a table of 10 guests, but every other table had 8 guests. When asked why they had two more people on their table, the bride explained that four ex-prisoners and their partners were at the wedding, and they had all requested to sit at a table with Mim and George.
When George needed some concrete laid for his shed, he contacted Marty who had been working as a concreter since his release. Straight away Marty said, “We’ll do it!”, despite living more than an hour away from George and Mim. George laughs, “When there’s an earthquake, Mim and I will stand on that concrete slab because it’s so strong.”
During the COVID lockdowns in Victoria, Mim and George received numerous calls from ex-prisoners. “Have you got enough groceries?” they would ask. “I can pick things up and drop them over to you – what do you need?”
Flying home from Sydney one day, Mim and George bumped into Joey* at the airport. Joey’s wife, Sandra* turned to Mim and said, “Thank you for looking after him in prison”. “Later the same year, we were filling the car with petrol and a fellow came up and said, ‘I’m working now and doing really well.’ That’s such a pleasure to hear!”
Mim smiles, “You don’t alway see the results of what you’re doing, but now and again, God moves the curtain to let you see that you’re helping somebody.”
“We go into prisons to befriend people,” Mim explains. As visitors, “You just go in quietly and talk to people, and you get to know them. When you’re talking to someone and showing them how to sew by hand, it’s really amazing – you have some amazing conversations.”
“We just tell jokes and talk with them. Sometimes they tell us really bad things, but we just listen. We have some really good discussions.”
When Mim was 6 years old, she met a group of young German prisoners of war. “They were working on my uncle’s farm,” she explains. “I remember eating with them around the table, and they were just young lads. As a child I knew the Germans were ‘baddies’, and you think to yourself, these lads are no different to our lads.” This realisation has stayed with Mim her whole life and has impacted her philosophy about people everywhere. “There’s no difference between us,” she says.
Mim and George work hard to get the guys to think differently about their identities. “One of the chaps said ‘I’m just an armed robber.’ But I said no, you were an armed robber, but now you’re a reformed character.”
“The thing is, we don’t look at them as sex-offenders or murderers or bank robbers. We don’t Google the men to know about their crimes. We don’t want to know,” George explains. “The truth of the matter is, you have to remind yourself that God loves that person as much as he loves you and me.”
Whenever one of the men is released, Mim and George make sure to say to them, “If you see us in Geelong, come and say hello.”
Mim laughs, “I always said I’d give up when I turned 80. But I’m 84 and I don’t feel like giving up! We have such a good time. If you’re willing, God will put you somewhere where you can be useful.”
Pray for inmates like Eddie* and Marty*. Pray that God would work powerfully through Mim and George’s efforts. Pray that those who are separated from their families and friends would be able to rebuild relationships.