The Power of Your Story – Aunty Pearl Wymarra on the power of your story

“Your story is your story, if you know it no one can take it away from you.” 

Aunty Pearl Wymarra has been visiting inmates in New South Wales prisons for over 35 years. After seeing some of her own family and friends in prison, Pearl feels keenly the need to support Indigenous inmates, and is passionate about giving all inmates their best chance after release. 

 

Storytelling is fundamental to Aunty Pearl’s ministry in prisons, for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal inmates. “I tell young people to know their story,” she explains. “The way you’re going to survive on the outside is to get to know your story, first in your heart. Balance it with your mind and develop the language to express it. Stories are important. If you [get to know your own story] you’ll be able to hold your own within your language, peer group, and outsiders too.”

 

“I know this works because a girl came to me at a function and introduced me to her kids. Beaming at me, Rachel* said, ‘I’ll never forget you telling us different stories about identity. Because of that, I was able to do what I needed to do once I got out of prison.’” 

 

“A woman once heard me talk about the healing power of heartfelt and genuine listening. Afterwards she said to me, “So are you saying, ‘hearts are for listening, ears are for hearing.’ She was right! It’s just as important to listen to other people’s stories, and to listen with your heart. It is in another person’s story that you will find an answer for yours. When we share stories, we learn things that will be good for our own story.”

 

Sharing her own story is an important part of Pearl’s ministry. “I told my story how it was,” she said, not holding back the grittier details of growing up on Thursday Island in a large family and not a lot of money. 

 

“I’m still above ground,” she’d say. “I’m still here – I grew up like that, really poor and struggling, and I’m still here. The boys were shocked that I had such a tough time as a kid, and they responded really well. ‘Aunty, that was good’, they’d say to me. I think it helped them to see me as not very different from them. That if I had made something of myself, they could do the same. They would say to me, ‘I’ve heard my grandma talk like you.’ 

 

“I shared stories and strategies that I learnt to navigate my way in amongst my tensions in life. I used to tell them about how I dealt with the racism. They related to my stories and found answers for theirs. I taught them stories of people from the past who have been imprisoned for their faith, and how they were able to survive. It’s the power of prayer. The boys really loved what I was doing with them,” she says. “We used to do singing, art, and storytelling. It was just one hour a week, but they were giving good feedback to the staff. I really enjoyed going in each week. ”

 

Pearl recalls working at a correctional centre without fences. When she worked with the boys, she would warn them, “There are no fences out here, just bush. If anyone does a runner while we’re out here playing rounders this program is going to stop, so you better behave yourselves.” But she says, “The boys respected the rules and appreciated that our group regularly visited them once a month.”

 

“They always knew I was a Christian, and over time, I drew Jesus into the story and shared Jesus’ life with them. I would tell them, ‘This is how Jesus did it’. My way of sharing the gospel is simplistic – it was from that strong teaching I had as a child. I remember falling in love with Jesus right away! The boys used to listen and were really interested in hearing about Jesus.”

 

“I would explain to the boys that we’re all captives in life – we’re all in the prisons of our minds. So I challenged them to think about who were the good people in their lives. I would say to them, ‘When you leave here, go back to the good people in your life. They’re waiting out there for you, but so are the ones who contributed to you being in here.’ I encouraged them to protect their spirits. ‘Don’t mix with people who are no good for your spirit. Make sure you go back to the good people!’”

 

“I like writing new words to old tunes. We were talking about this song written by Andy Travis, ‘There’s room at the cross for you,’ but I changed it to ‘There’s room on the outside for you; your lands are out there.’ I was trying to plant in their minds that they have an identity and there are people waiting for them on the outside, even on their country.”

 

“I encouraged the boys to make the most of their time inside to heal from the inside out. I encouraged them to write their stories and focus on the positive things that have happened in their lives.  There is a uniqueness to the time spent inside, a time that must be used well, not neglected. Make the most of the time inside because when you’re outside you don’t have time – you go back to old patterns.”

 

“Prison ministry is really vital, because it’s an opportunity to reach out – particularly to young people – to help people to trust again and to know that they can and should make the most of their life while in prison. They should work on the restoration of their spirit, and make time for prayer. We have an opportunity to tell stories of people who have been in prison – we need to be able to share those stories.”

 

“One day I was at Penrith station in Sydney, and this Aboriginal boy and girl were walking towards me with a stroller. He looked at me and said, ‘Hey Aunty Pearl, how are you? You probably don’t remember me, but I was in your class in prison, when you used to come in and teach us.’ And I said, ‘Oh, Mitchell* you’re out now!’ He said, ‘Yeah, and this is my partner and our kid.’ We had a great yarn, and that was a lovely thing to happen to me that day. It was so rewarding.” 

 

*Names have been changed 

The Margins: Traversing the lines that divide

The margins of society.

It’s a term often used to identify the space in which prisoners find themselves. Separated, divided, apart from others. Usually the margins are not crossed over, and when they are traversed it is only in isolated circumstances.

I’ve been working with Prison Fellowship and entering prisons for 5 years. Prison ministry is one of the most challenging spaces I have ever worked in, and that has nothing to do with the inmates. Prison is a place where the rules can change at any moment and often without explanation. It can be a challenging and discouraging environment.

Yet, prison ministry is also full of surprising moments of encouragement. Recently, while running Change on the Inside with the 10 inmates who had requested to take part, I was suddenly and unexpectedly encouraged. We were coming to the final session for the day when some of the comments just seemed to make it all worth it.

“We really appreciate you coming in and being so vulnerable with us, letting us see that you have the same struggles as us. The other guys that come in behave high and mighty, but you really show us you care.”  

Although it was Jason* who spoke the words, some of the others around the room nodded in agreement and later expressed deep gratitude to us.

As a State Manager I go to great lengths to let the guys in prison know that the men and women who visit them are volunteers. They are doing what they do because they care for them. They want to be in the ‘space’ and spend time engaging. They want to traverse that line and be there in the margins with them.

The longer I am part of this ministry, the more I want my friends, family, and the wider Church to visit prison with me so they too can see there is nothing to fear. To see that there are beautiful men and women who are discarded and forgotten by society, many of whom long for real change in their lives. And who, like all people on either side of the margin line, find self-worth in knowing they are loved and cared for.

It reminds me that our volunteers in prisons are somewhat like the kindly harvester and the sheaves of wheat spoken of in Ruth 2:2-4.

“One day Ruth, the Moabite foreigner, said to Naomi, ‘I’m going to work; I’m going out to glean among the sheaves, following after some harvester who will treat me kindly.’ Naomi said, ‘Go ahead, dear daughter.’ And so she set out. She went and started gleaning in a field, following in the wake of the harvesters.”

Ruth was anticipating that she would find wheat that the harvester had left along the margins of the field, as was the requirement of the Law. But she was hoping to encounter an abundance that was even more than the required amount, so that she and her mother-in-law, Naomi, could eat. Both being widows they were struggling to survive.

In the same way, prisoners enter our rooms expecting to perhaps, at minimum, encounter some meaningful engagement with those from the other side of the margin. 

These women didn’t just find the added generosity of abundance in the margins that day; their lives were changed forever through an encounter with Boaz, the owner of the fields. I know that the same can happen in the lives of inmates as they encounter the abundance of God’s love when expressed through volunteers who go into the margins.

Lives are changed forever through these encounters – and that is our constant prayer at Prison Fellowship Australia, that more people step into the abundance of the margin experience of  being a volunteer.

Ian Townsend  
State Manager SA and NT

*Names have been changed

A Transformed Life: How finding a Bible in prison transformed Michael

I’ve been volunteering with Prison Fellowship since 2017 and as an assistant chaplain since 2021. I’ve had a wonderful time working with the team here! I consider it an incredible opportunity to be part of a world-wide team that is so well-established and well-organised. 

 

It’s a very rewarding experience, working in prisons. The inmates who attend our chapel services are so encouraged to have the chance to fellowship and worship with other Christians. Each time they hear the Word of God, their desire to learn continues to grow – It’s very moving and energising for us as volunteers!

 

Phil (left) with David Berry, Daniel Tetteh, and Victor Rao in Darwin

 

I’ve seen many inmates give their life to God over the years. One man in particular, Michael*, is from one of the Northern Territory islands. I met him many years ago in the community, and a few years later he found himself in prison. Michael began attending our chapel services each Saturday in the prison.

 

One day after Saturday chapel, I asked him what kept him coming to the services, and he replied, “Well, Phil, I came to prison not having anything to read. I looked and looked for something to read, and I only ever found a Bible. So, I began to read it. And I read and I read, and it began to change my heart. Over time it also began to change my life.” 

 

We began to see that something in Michael was different. And a few weeks later after one of our church services, he called me aside. His face glowed with relief and peace as he told me, “Phil, I had a visit from my wife this week and she said that she had forgiven me.” He had already been transformed by God’s forgiveness, and now he had been forgiven by his wife! 

 

When Michael finished his sentence he moved back home and helped to establish a local secondary school. More recently, Michael is a visiting elder to the prison in Darwin – he’s very well-respected in the prison. 

 

There’s nothing like speaking to people who are desperate to hear what you’re saying. When we tell the stories of Jesus, you can see the guys connect with them. When you’re talking to these guys, they really want to hear what you’ve got to say. That’s a real blessing. Volunteering in prisons has been one of the highlights of my life!

 

The Lord bless you for your service.

 

Phil
Former prison chaplain and State Advisory Council member, SA/NT

 

After 5 years with Prison Fellowship, Phil is stepping down from his role to care for his wife. Phil joined the team as we were establishing a presence in the Darwin Correctional Centre for the first time, and it was God’s perfect timing. We will see Phil’s influence on our work for many years to come as he has helped so much in establishing the tone of care and love that the team has in that place. We will miss his gentle spirit and wisdom. It is our prayer that both Phil and Dorothy enjoy the pleasures that the NT provides in their retirement. – Ian Townsend 

 

*Names have been changed

 

 

Why would you help Him? Kevin Maddock reflects on God’s grace for inmates

The line between good and bad doesn’t run around the top of the prison wall – it runs right through the middle of each of our hearts. This is one of many things prison ministry has taught me.

When I first started to visit Victorian prisons regularly in 1979, one of the issues I needed to deal with was, ‘Are there any prisoners that I didn’t want to spend time with?’

 

If I met a person who was convicted of a crime when I knew the victim or their family, how would I react? How would others outside the prison react if they knew that I was spending time with some of these people on the inside? 

 

A Leopard Can Change Its Spots 

I am always aware that when I share at public gatherings about prison ministry there are likely to be victims of crime in the audience. I always point out that the bottom line in what we do is, “No more victims.” It’s not about condoning crime or criminal behaviour. It’s about stopping the cycle of crime. 

 

One day when I had shared about the ministry of Prison Fellowship in Victoria, a lady came up to me and told me that it was useless trying to help or support those who were in prison because, “A leopard can’t change his spots.” 

 

Ron Nikkel, the former President of Prison Fellowship International once said,

“When I say that I have never met a monster in prison, I am not saying that I haven’t met people who aren’t capable of and culpable for their evil deeds. What I am saying is that, while I have met offenders who are guilty of the vilest and most violent offences imaginable, and while their actions are repulsive, I can only meet them on the level ground of our common humanity. God’s gift of life to each of us. That does not mean those offenders are not responsible for their deeds or that they should not be punished. What I do mean is that as long as they are alive, they are a person whose life story is not finished, and because God gave them life and God loves them, their life story remains open to all of the possibilities of grace and redemption – transformation, reconciliation, and restoration.”

 

I am a witness to such stories of redemption and transformation, for among the “incorrigible” offenders who have done monstrous evil are many who have been completely transformed by the grace of God and the love of people who did not diminish them or write them off as monsters. 

 

Some years ago I was on the news as I met a high-profile prisoner at the prison gate, and drove him to the district where he was to live. He had been convicted of murdering a child and had just been released at the end of his sentence.  

 

When we walked out of the prison together the media cameras were recording. As we drove out of the prison car park a helicopter came down low and was filming our exit. The helicopter followed us for about 30 minutes, filming as we travelled, continually coming down very low beside us. The whole episode was the lead story on the evening news. The media company involved didn’t bother to hide my number plates, and some of our neighbours let me know that they were not happy with me helping a person like that.

 

But my friend in prison wrote a letter to me saying, “I was sitting in my cell watching the TV News – and saw you picking him up. Your work does not go unnoticed for those you help no matter the crime.”

 

Two Huge Lies

I have found this quote by Rick Warren to be true, “Our culture has accepted two huge lies, the first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

 

There is always the question, “Does this man deserve support and help?” Often the response is “No,” especially when you know the lives that have been destroyed by their choices, decisions, and actions.

 

But does accepting people, showing them respect, and treating them with humanity mean that I condone their actions and crime?

 

It can be hard to sit with the person who has had a different life from you, perhaps been rejected by family, who has poor health, maybe experienced great trauma, perhaps struggled with mental illness, who can’t hold down a job.

 

In their search for grace and peace, they may have turned to different types of addictions, to gambling, drugs or alcohol. They may be angry, have a short fuse, and may have lost any respect for themselves and so have no respect for other people. They may lash out at any person who offers care, especially the “do-gooders” who they expect to be self-righteous and judgemental.

 

It is sometimes a slow process to win friendship and build trust, especially for someone who has had their trust betrayed many times. But it is enormously rewarding to witness the light appear in the eyes of a person as they start to discover that they are cared for and respected and ultimately loved by God, and as they discover God’s goodness and grace.

 

We come to understand that there is no human being that is so far away, that God’s love cannot reach them.

 

Even in our brokenness and failures the fingerprints of a gracious creator are still on each of us. And because of that, we have the potential to be healed of the wounds that we carry, and our future can be different from our past.

 

Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst said, “But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness – that I myself am the enemy who must be loved. What then?”

 

Grace always seems unfair until I find myself in need of it.

 

Everybody Needs a Friend

I remember not long after I started to visit prisons I was sitting in a with an elderly man who asked me what my role was in the prison. I told him that I was a visitor offering friendship to those who needed a friend. I remember his eyes filled up with tears and he said, “I have never had a friend.” Some inmates are rejected and isolated and treated badly by other prisoners as well as their families.

 

I remember being told by a lady who was the Program Manager at one of the main long-term prisons of the state that over 60 percent of the prisoners in that prison had no contact with anyone outside, no one on a phone list, no visitors, no Christmas, or birthday cards. 

 

One man that I was chatting with, referred to his “waxer.” I didn’t know what he meant so I asked him. He explained that it was an old sailing term referring to a friend who was trusted, the sort of friend who would watch your back while in prison. He explained that in times past sailors on the big sailing ships worked in pairs when they were making or repairing the sails. One sailor would sew the canvas sail while the other one would rub wax onto the stitching to protect it from the weather. The person who did the heavy work of sewing the sails would swap with his mate when he needed a rest, and the person who had been waxing the stitching would then continue with the sewing. Many prisoners don’t have a “waxer.”

  

A good friendship makes the person understand that the “best self” is the “real self.” Sometimes I have sought to plant seeds of hope and meaning in their life. I have told many inmates, “After this is over, you could be the type of bloke who could make your little kids so proud of you.”

 

He didn’t get there by himself

When I was in my early teens, my dad taught me an important lesson. We were building a new fence line on our farm in Victoria. It was heavy work and dad had taken a break from the post hole digging. As I walked along the fenceline, I noticed a strange thing. There was a tortoise sitting on top of a fence post. 

 

Its head was right out of the shell and the head and legs were waving around in a strange way. I called out to my dad and asked him to come and look at it. He came slowly back with a big smile on his face. He had seen the tortoise travelling across the paddock and had picked it up and placed it on the post to show me when I came along later.

 

I remember what he said to me. “When you see a tortoise on a fencepost, you know he didn’t get there by himself.” 

 

He said that when you see a person who had become very wealthy, powerful, or successful, to always remember that he didn’t get there by himself. There are always a group of people who have contributed to their station, maybe family, community, or employees who have worked and made sacrifices to make it happen. 

 

Over the years of life’s journey, I have come to see that there is another side of that wise saying. In spending time visiting in the prisons, I have met some people who have arrived at the bottom of society, with no wealth or power, now hated and feared by society because of the crimes that they have committed. They didn’t get there by themselves either.

 

I remember speaking with a chap who has spent most of his life in prison. He told me that for the past three generations his family had been totally involved in organised crime. His father and grandfather had both been killed in gang wars. He said, “I wonder what my life could have been if I was born into a different family.”

 

A senior person in Corrections Victoria once told me that over ninety-five percent of prisoners had been either victims of crime or were struggling with mental health issues. I have spent time with many men who, for various reasons were made wards of the state in their early years. Many experienced different types of abuse and violence.

 

We must always have more sympathy, empathy and offering of support for the victims of crime than for the person who has committed the crime. Yet, at the same time, we must see and connect with another’s humanity, no matter how damaged it seems. We cannot afford to dehumanise anyone.

 

Recently I read about an elderly pastor who was known to help men turn their lives around. From heading toward prison to becoming strong stable people who could help others with the issues of life.

 

He was asked how he was able to bring change to these men. He said, “I hold a crown over their heads and encourage them to grow into it.”

   

May the Good Lord help us as we seek to reflect accurately God’s love, forgiveness and grace to those who need it the most.

 

Kevin Maddock – Prison Fellowship Supporter and Volunteer

 

Transforming Lives Every Day

When I first heard that children with a parent in prison are 6 times more likely to end up in prison than their peers, it broke my heart. Innocent children whose lives are turned upside down at such a young age. 

Little did I know that God was preparing me for a role at Prison Fellowship years later, where he would use me to set up a program called Extraordinary Lives. This wonderful program brings together Angel Tree and Camp for Kids under the one umbrella to work in a more connected way by also incorporating one-to-one mentoring, educational support, and facilitating prison visits for families.

It’s estimated there are around 43,000 children in Australia who currently have a parent in prison. These children are the innocent and invisible victims of crime. Some are living with grandparents, some with extended family, and many are in the care of the state. 

Prison Fellowship in every state and territory of Australia is working towards expanding its services to secure the wellbeing and future for these children and young people. We pray that our mentors sow the seeds of God’s love and purpose for them and their future, and that they invite Jesus to be central to their lives.

In my 18 months as national Extraordinary Lives Coordinator, it has been wonderful to see the impact that mentoring and support can have on a child with a parent in prison. Put simply, lives are transformed. 

As part of this role I have connected with grandparents who were just beginning to wind down and enjoy retirement when they were suddenly thrust back into a full-time child-raising role as one of their children was sent to prison. I am amazed by their strength, love, sacrifice, and care

Deborah* was waiting at the Prison Fellowship office to collect her grandchildren who were coming back from Camp for Kids when she overheard volunteers being trained as mentors. Walking into the room, she began, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt. I just have to say thank you for all you do for children. Mentoring would be wonderful for my grandkids, they need it so much. I am overwhelmed that there are people like you that care enough to want to help.”  

For Deborah, Camp for Kids was her first break from her grandchildren since her daughter went to prison. She was run down and exhausted.

 

Deborah’s grandchildren loved camp! “It’s important that they get a break from me and have other people to talk to. All the kids on the camp had something in common [a parent in prison], which made it much easier for them to talk about things. The camp leaders are different from parents and teachers and they are there to help. Their communication with me was great – when one of them wasn’t doing well they rang me and together we talked about what would work best for her particular behaviours. It was really good that they called. My grandkids got to see things done differently and that really helped.”

Deborah’s grandchildren are now being mentored by two leaders from camp. “It was really good,” she says, “Knowing the mentors from the camp and having that relationship made a big difference once mentoring started. It has helped them take responsibility, as well as doing things they enjoy like cooking and rollerblading.”

For children with a parent in prison, having a supportive mentor who listens to and affirms them, who offers encouragement and is a positive role model in their lives can increase their self-esteem. A Christian mentor can also share the love Jesus has for them and how He sees them, counteracting the negativity they hear about their identity and their future.

Through Extraordinary Lives, Deborah’s grandchildren now have mentors, attend camps in the school holidays, receive gifts from their mum at Christmas, and receive other support as needed. 

Oh, and Deborah gets some time to just relax!

 

When you talk, don’t say anything bad. But say the good things that people need—whatever will help them grow stronger. Then what you say will be a blessing to those who hear you. Ephesians 4:29 ERV

 

Sue Oliver, Former Extraordinary Lives Coordinator

 

 

Volunteer your time to mentor a child with a parent in prison or become a leader on Camp for Kids.

“I was on my way to jail, but Camp changed that.” How Camp for Kids changed the trajectory of Holly’s life.

“Prison Fellowship actually changed the trajectory of my life. They showed me what normal looked like. I’ve had a lot of social work interaction, counsellors, and psychologists as a young person, and none of them was as effective as the volunteers from Prison Fellowship.” 

For many children of prisoners, having a safe space to be seen, heard, and encouraged is rare. But Prison Fellowship’s Camp for Kids is one such space. This free week-long camp is designed to be a time of encouragement and fun, where children of inmates spend time with other kids in similar situations, hear about Jesus, and have a lot of fun. For Holly Nicholls, Camp for Kids was so much more than just a fun week away from home. It was a life-changing experience. 

 

A Broken Home

“Growing up, I had a lot of trauma. My dad was a substance user and he was in and out of jail. Every three years, he’d go in for crimes relating to poverty – he would do robberies or whatever, just to get his drugs. It led me to feel a bit abandoned. I literally came from a broken home, in every sense of the word. There were heaps of holes in our walls and nothing worked. It was just horrible to live there, and I never really felt safe, ever. I was always hypervigilant from all the trauma and watching my mum get really badly beaten all the time, so I had insomnia when I was little. And when I first came into contact with Prison Fellowship I was very antisocial and very aggressive because that was my safety mechanism.” 

“I was an angry young person because I was going through these social issues that my friends couldn’t really relate to. It was hard because dad was in and out all the time. That was really frustrating for me. I had low self-esteem because I thought, why can’t he just stay out? Why can’t we be a family? What’s wrong with me?” 

“That made me angry and I was hypervigilant because of the trauma that came from observing family violence and just dealing with the police a lot, that would come to our house and kick our door in, and stuff like that. I was really hostile towards any authority figures, including my teachers at school. It was pretty hard. I couldn’t make sense of what was happening, so it just led to anger, always angry.” 

“We were really poor. All the money my dad got just went straight up his arm. That’s what my mum always used to say. I was 10 and I didn’t really understand what she meant. Mum used to go to the pokies a lot. She was pretty good at making sure we had food, even if we just had bread for dinner, which we did a lot, we always got fed. At least we always had dinner and breakfast.”

 

A Life-Changing Camp

It was only when Holly was invited to attend Camp for Kids when she was 13, that she experienced positive affirmation for the first time.

Holly at Camp, 2010

 

“We played a game called shooting stars – it’s a confidence-building exercise where we get positive affirmations from our peers. We’d sit in a circle, and then we’d say, ‘I’d like to send a shooting star to…’ and then we’d pick someone in the group, and thank them for something, or say something positive about them. I just remember feeling something I had never felt before. It was unusual for me to hear positive things about myself. I really, really loved it.” 

“I feel like the whole cohort at camp did not really have self-esteem, because when your parent keeps going to jail the lens becomes inward-focused, and you think, ‘Why don’t you love me enough to be good, to not go to jail?’”

The other activities at camp also boosted Holly’s confidence and social skills. “We did a lot of physical activity, but then we did some games that helped us with our social skills and relationship building. That was a skill I really needed at the time as well – [at school] I didn’t really have the social skills to make friends. I was kind of a bully actually because I didn’t want to get bullied myself. It was just that power and control thing, I think.”

“The self-esteem that I got from the activities at Camp was huge. The games focused not just on physical activity, but they targeted our emotional well-being. That was a very new concept to me and it was really cool to hear young people saying nice things about me because in school that didn’t happen. It helped me build my sense of self-worth that got torn away from me by my dad because he wouldn’t stay out of jail.”

“Camp was the first place I really experienced healthy love. I would display a lot of positive behaviours post-camp, as well. For a good six months, I’d be super good. For that six months, I wouldn’t be out shoplifting or hurting people, attacking people in the community. I used to fight, fight all day, every day. Just used to fight anyone, everyone. After Camp, I didn’t feel like I needed to do that anymore because I felt in control of my own life after spending a week away with these amazing people that just lift you up. I just think that’s paramount to young people’s well-being, to be able to connect with kids that are like-minded and in the same situation because every kid has that allyship. We seek out who’s similar to us and being in mainstream school, it’s not many. To be able to form those connections is really important.”

 

The Impact of Mentors

“The mentorship from the leaders on camp was really impactful. We’d go for bush walks and have chats – they were really helpful. It was nice to talk to an adult who wasn’t substance-affected because that was the norm for me, for my dad to be so stoned. He would be nodding off when I spoke to him. So when I spoke to a male that was not substance-affected, it was really nice. I didn’t have any male role models at all, so it was helpful.”

Dean, one of the camp leaders

Two leaders, in particular, were influential for Holly. “I had a lot of people, like Dean and Abel, just put time into me, checked on me, and drummed into my head, ‘You have so much potential. You need to go to university. The way you think and the way you speak, you’re really smart. You just have to do something with yourself.’”

“Abel’s got a really caring and compassionate nature, the way he responded to me when I was angry as well, was just really calm. He wouldn’t get angry with me. He used music as well. He used music to connect with me and other young people and it was really therapeutic. It worked well.”

“Dean would tell me, ‘You’re a really bright young person, you have a lot of potential. If you ever need a job reference anything, I’ve got you.’ I never had that male mentorship before, so I guess it gave me a sense of what normal looks like. These are young men, they’re functioning, they have jobs, they’re kind, they don’t lose their mind if you do the wrong thing or step out of line. You’re not going to get beat up. You’re not going to get screamed at. It was just really different for me. It just opened up a different element of society I had never seen before because my dad was a drug user, so therefore all his friends were also drug users too. I’d never met a man with a job.”

“My education definitely helped me to break the cycle of crime because I broke away from my old friendship groups and started to make better friends at university. I have a whole host of friends who are employed and they make positive contributions to the community. I still have friends that use drugs and are in prison right now, people from my childhood that I grew up with. But my education changed my trajectory and that’s partly thanks to Prison Fellowship for their leadership and mentorship – the things that they showed me and taught me on camp.”

“Those positive connections that I made with caring adults who actually cared and held our well-being as important – it was really important and something very new to me and I know it was new to a lot of other young people too.”

Angel Tree also had a big impact on Holly as a kid. As she explains, “We were dirt poor and I was given a designer bag through Angel Tree. I felt amazing. Like the shooting stars game, it just lifted my self-esteem immensely. I was so grateful for that.”

 

Paying it Forward

Holly today

Holly, now 29, is a social worker, working with kids in temporary housing and foster care. “I did a diploma in community service work at TAFE and a social work honours degree at RMIT. I now work at Anglicare Victoria as a therapeutic youth worker. I work with young people in out-of-home care in a residential setting and act as a pseudo-parent, just making sure they’re okay. I help build their life skills, enhance their well-being, and keep them safe.” 

“I guess the connections that I made with the adults on Camp made me want to become a social worker. I guess I’m paying it forward because I know they had a big impact on my life. They really did. It’s just hard to find the words. They did change the trajectory of my life because they showed me how to be a normal member of society. I want to help people as well. They made a difference for me and it’d be beautiful if I could do that for another young person.”

“The leaders on camp definitely influenced my own leadership style. I try to lead with compassion and seek to understand because that’s how they operated. When you take kids away on camp, there are going to be rules, but they would always lead with compassion and care, and always seek to understand, instead of just being punitive straight off the bat. Camp for Kids is really important because it gives kids insight into a new normal and what a functioning person in society looks like. That’s important.” 

“I think we need to destigmatise having a parent in prison. It is not very talked about. I made the mistake of telling someone in primary school and I did get bullied for it, and I did not really understand why. We need to start having conversations about it, because I do not really understand where the stigma comes from.” 

“It’s really important to keep Prison Fellowship going because they have a really good model of care. It is crazy – I am practising as a social worker, and I do not think I have ever met anyone that has the skill base and compassion that the volunteers on those camps have. No one can match it; it is crazy. So just making sure that they stay up and running and keep extending and extending to help kids like us is really important, because they are changing lives. We need them.” 

 

Give a generous gift today to allow more children of inmates to experience hope and love on Camp for Kids.

“Dad didn’t forget about me.” The immeasurable impact of an Angel Tree gift

Clarisa spent much of her childhood travelling around Victoria visiting her father, who was in prison. There are two things that she remembers clearly about that time in her life: spending quality time with her dad and receiving Angel Tree gifts. 

 

Our ‘Normal’

My name is Clarisa, and my dad went to jail when I was four years old and my brother was just five weeks old. My dad was in jail for nine years, and so we grew up going to all the different jails to visit him. Getting to the prisons was incredibly difficult sometimes. The drives ended up being longer than the time we got to spend with Dad. We would drive for an hour and 30 minutes for a half-hour or hour-long visit, sometimes only through the window. Dad was moved to different prisons a lot of the time, so we basically travelled all throughout Victoria!

I used to feel jealous of other kids with their dads because we never had our dad around to pick us up from school or play with us in the backyard. Things that were considered ‘normal’ for all the other kids would have been an extraordinary experience for us. 

I had to get used to telling people where my dad was and why he wasn’t with us because the kids at school would ask lots of questions. I remember being bullied at school and not understanding why they were teasing us. That was our normal—to have one parent around.  Even the teachers in primary school bullied us because my dad was not around and just treated us differently. Even nowadays when people ask me questions about my mum and dad, I say, ‘I grew up with my dad in jail’, and they are taken aback and shocked.

 

Gifts of Hope and Joy

We never really got presents growing up and sometimes the only present we would get would be from Dad through the Angel Tree program. Receiving the Angel Tree gifts was a great blessing to us. Dad would write a little note that went with the gifts and we still have them to this day. I remember feeling like, ‘Wow! Dad didn’t forget about me. He actually thought about me and got me something!’ I still have some of those presents, because they meant a lot to me. Getting something like that from Dad meant the world. It made Christmas more normal for us even though Dad wasn’t there. It made us feel like every other child receiving gifts at Christmas time.

Feeling like you are not forgotten and feeling like you are an actual person who is loved makes all the difference to a child. And when I did get the presents from Dad, it helped us feel closer to him while he was in jail. It really just made a difference in our lives. 

 

Feeling Loved is a Very Important Story

The only two positives that I remember from that time are that we got to spend time with Dad together, and receiving presents through Angel Tree. Those are the moments that I remember leaving the jail feeling different. It hit differently. 

Prison Fellowship really supported my family, too. Prison Fellowship was a big part of our lives and came alongside my family and me. I know Prison Fellowship does an incredible job! There were obviously lots of things that helped during that time, but this was really important, to know my dad still remembered me and still loved me. A card with money is okay, but a present means everything. Kids love that – a present you can unwrap!

I want Prison Fellowship to be around forever and keep making the impact that they are making because they impacted my life and I would not be who I am today if it was not for the love that I received from them. Prison Fellowship is part of why I am who I am today, and I am very grateful for it.  Feeling loved is a very important story. 

Today, when I buy Angel Tree presents, I try to get in the mindset of what I was like as a kid, to get something meaningful that will bring joy. Those kids are probably in the most desperate times in their life. They’re missing their mum or dad and might not know what’s happening. Their parent outside prison might not be in a position to get them a present. You never know what it’s going to do in their life. Look where I am today and the memories I still have from receiving a gift!

Angel Tree is an incredible opportunity to help brighten a child’s life! It gives hope and joy to a child who has had to go through situations that no child, nor person, should have to go through. 

When you buy an Angel Tree gift, you’re helping someone, and you experience the joy of being a blessing. When these kids get an Angel Tree gift, they’re reminded that they are not forgotten and that their mum or dad still loves them. They need it. 

Thank you so so much for all the incredible work you do! It’s life-saving!

Clarisa 

Clarisa today with her family at Christmas

Give a generous gift to brighten a child’s life today.

The forgotten victims of crime: Parliamentary Inquiry into Children Affected by Parental Incarceration

“Children with a parent in prison are six times more likely than their peers to end up in prison as adults. They are often labelled the ‘forgotten victims of crime’, and we believe it is critical to offer tailored support to this unique cohort” – Glen Fairweather, CEO, Prison Fellowship Australia. 

 

Prison Fellowship Australia CEO, Glen Fairweather along with Angel Tree recipients Holly Nicholls and Clarisa Allen recently gave evidence to the Inquiry into Children Affected by Parental Incarceration in Victoria. 

 

The inquiry, chaired by Fiona Pattern MP, looked at the social, emotional, and health impacts on children when a parent is imprisoned, and what infrastructure currently exists in Victoria to support these children. 

Holly and Clarisa front the media with Fiona Patten MP. (Photo credit: Parliament of Victoria)

The report outlines 29 recommendations, including establishing a dedicated branch within the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing to respond to children and families of those affected by parental incarceration. 

 

As Ms Patten states, children affected by parental incarceration, “serve a sentence alongside their parent, an experience which may affect them negatively for their whole lives. This has to stop and we have to help.” 

 

The report recommended that Victoria Police “develop and improve protocols to incorporate child-aware procedures and practice at the point of and in the aftermath of arrest.”1

 

For Clarisa, the trauma of her father’s arrest will stay with her for life. As she explains, “I still remember the day that they came and they took him. They barged through the door and they came in running around and pushing us around. It was quite scary. I remember them smashing my guitar. Funnily enough, every time I smell wood now I think of my guitar getting smashed.” 

 

Holly had a similar experience – “We had our front door kicked off; anyone could have just walked into our house. We were just little kids and we got caught up in it, and I am still paying for it now.” 

 

Recommendation 20 of the report states that “child-friendly visiting facilities and practices should be implemented in all prisons throughout Victoria.”2 For many children, visiting their parent in prison can be “unfriendly, hostile or traumatising.”3 Clarisa often experienced this when she visited her father in prison, “I remember how they would pat me down and they put a wand on me. I remember being so scared sometimes of the prison guards because they were just so scary looking and really tough looking—just really stern.” 

 

During their evidence, Clarisa and Holly both emphasised the positive impact that Prison Fellowship has on their lives. As Clarisa says, “Please keep Prison Fellowship. They were the only initiative that helped families. If Prison Fellowship could be around forever and keep making the impact that they are making, because they impacted my life and I would not be who I am today, honestly, if it was not for the love that I received via them.”

 

Likewise, Holly says, “I am now practising as a social worker, and I do not think I have ever met anyone that has the skill base and compassion that the Prison Fellowship volunteers have. No one can match it; it is crazy. We need to make sure that they stay up and running and keep extending and extending to help kids like us because they are changing lives. We need them.” 

 

Learn more about the report here

1 Parliament of Victoria, Legislative Council, ‘Inquiry into children affected by parental incarceration’, (Parliament of Victoria, 2022), p. xxvi

2 Parliament of Victoria, ‘Inquiry into children affected by parental incarceration, p. xxxii

3 Parliament of Victoria, ‘Inquiry into children affected by parental incarceration, p. xxxi

 

“We want to speak life into them”  The importance of Camp for Kids for the children of inmates 

As a former Director of Camp for Kids, Rachel Mason understands the importance of providing an outlet and a safe space for children of prisoners each year. “If we can give the kids at least one positive week in their year, then you’re impacting them for a number of years which could turn into a lifetime of change.”

 

How long have you been involved at Camp for Kids? 

“I lead for 11 years, and directed the camp for 3 years.”

 

What does Camp for Kids look like?

“It’s a week-long camp in the school holidays. We do basic camp activities – canoeing, flying fox, stuff like that. We have sessions where a camp speaker will share stories of hope and positive choices, and about Jesus.  We also do lots of activities in small groups. So a whole range of different things.”

 

Why do you think Camp for Kids is so important? 

“I think camp really provides these kids with an understanding that they’re not alone. We don’t specifically say, ‘All of you kids are here because you have a loved one in prison,’ but they slowly discover it for themselves and then realise that they’re not the only ones in that situation. Even though they’ve had their difficult experiences they’ve got people around them who want to give them positive experiences and want to speak life into them and show them the good things about them.

“I think more often than not the kids feel pretty negatively about themselves, asking things like, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ Camp gives them something to look forward to. So no matter how bad things are, at least they know that they have that one week to look forward to. There are a lot of kids who don’t want to go home at the end of camp. They say things like, ‘I don’t know when I’ll get to do something like this again.’ They’re like, ‘It might be a whole year before I can get back to have fun.’”

 

Tell me about Stacey*, one of the campers.

“Stacey’s dad has been in and out of prison for the majority of her life. She’s been in foster care from an early age because her mum’s been in and out of drug rehab. She’s got huge walls up. It takes a very long time for her to trust anybody. 

 

“I think it hit her quite hard, like a lot of kids, that all of us leaders have volunteered our time to come there. We’re not being paid. We actually, for the most part, put money towards it ourselves and take time off work or study to be there. I think that really hit her that there are actually people who care and want to take time out to be there for her.

 

“I think camp has given her a community of people that she feels comfortable with. Each camp she’s come out of her shell a little bit more. I probably met her six or seven years ago on camp, and you basically wouldn’t get one word out of her, whereas now she’s a junior leader, and is doing everything she can to make sure that the kids that are on camp, and in her group, are feeling loved and protected and everything, by her. So I think it’s really had an impact and made her realise, ‘If  camp has had such a big impact on me, how can I help to have that same sort of impact on someone else?’”

 

How did Stacey go as a junior leader?

“There were two girls last year who were two of the more demanding campers. But they absolutely clung to Stacey and we literally had to make Stacey go and take a break so she could have some time to rest and recuperate in order to be able to continue to support them. I think these girls realised that Stacey was genuine and she had that care for them that helped them to get open to her. 

“I think she helped them to be more engaged over the course of the week and take part in the activities rather than doing their own thing. They stayed with the whole group because they didn’t want to leave Stacey’s side.

 

What impact has mentoring and Camp had on Stacey?

“If Stacey didn’t have Camp for Kids and a mentor, I think she would have potentially headed down a much darker path in her later teenage years. I believe camp gave her a community she feels comfortable in. A community that she can talk to and hash things out with when peer pressure and tricky teenage things raise their heads.

“I think the biggest thing for me has been watching her grow as a junior leader; the compassion  she has for the younger kids, and her passion to see them have a more positive life.” 

 

What would you say to encourage someone reading this to support Camp for Kids?

“ When you donate to this program you’re completely changing a kid’s life and redirecting their path.”

 

*Name has been changed to protect privacy

 

Pray for the children of inmates, that they would connect with mentors and receive the support they need to thrive. 

Reflections from a TPJ facilitator: “We’re always amazed how God makes himself visible to people in prison.”

 

“I’ve never had a course where someone hasn’t said ‘There’s something different about this group – what is it?’”

As a volunteer-driven organisation, we rely on your support and donations to serve those in prison, and their families. Our volunteers run courses like The Prisoner’s Journey (TPJ), an 8-week course that introduces inmates to Jesus, allows them to ask questions, and learn more about the Christian faith. 

Rosy is one such volunteer, and she knows the incredible power of a course like TPJ.

“It’s a process of discovery,” she says. “Those 8 weeks are crucial – we see it play out in an amazing way. Someone will say in week 4 or 5, ‘I just stopped swearing. What’s that about?’ These are the natural side effects of being in God’s word. TPJ is very distinct from anything else.” 

Maria* had always been a fighter. She was a very passionate leader and had a short fuse. But something changed when she joined TPJ. After a fellow inmate had hurt Maria’s relative in the prison, she confronted her, but instead of becoming aggressive and physical as she usually would, she was peaceful. “My muscle is our Father God,” she said. “People are asking me, ‘Are you going to bash her?’ And I said no, I’m going to give her a cuddle.” 

“The course is really well-designed in that the participants create the safe space themselves. We have a piece of paper and we invite them to establish the rules for the space and the course. They add things like ‘respect’ and so we tease out what that means. Then all the girls sign the piece of paper, and they keep themselves and each other accountable throughout the course” 

Rosy says, “There are always people who want to stick around and hear us as we pray, but not participate. But invariably, by the end of the course, they want us to pray with them. One woman asked if she could pray one day – the next time she marched into the room glowing. She told us she had prayed on the phone with her husband for the very first time. It had been the most precious experience. She was so excited for what this could mean for her to be able to pray with her husband.”

 

“We’re always amazed how God makes himself visible to people in prison. On the outside we have so many access points and support systems open to many of us. But when those are taken away, God shows up in dramatic ways. Over and over in our courses, people say to me, ‘This makes sense, but I just don’t know if this is real.’” 

Invariably, God shows up to these people. One girl in particular said she had a really rough time, and she wanted to know if she could trust God. We prayed for her, and the next week she was a completely different person. She said, ‘I had a dream, and it was the most powerful thing. I saw Jesus and he showed me that I could trust him.’”

“We’re amazed at the way that God works. We just trust him. The last course we did, there was one lady who never gave anything away the whole time. Izzy*, was very closed off. She was just there to get out of her cell. She was just playing the game. But she still came every single week. We would pray for her and pray for her. But the very last graduation day, still very blank faced, she got up from her chair and went to the front of the room, grabbed a whiteboard marker and signed her name on the board and said, ‘I’m in’. Her body language changed instantly. It was like this veil fell away. She had been taking in what we were talking about, and it was incredibly powerful to see that God is always at work. It reminds us to be consistent in prayer because God always wants to break through.” 

“Our graduation day is a very special day, so we make a really big deal of it. We celebrate together, we invite the participants to share something – a song, a memory, something they’ve discovered. It’s a really encouraging time. One of the girls shared a story about how when she was at her worst time in life, planning to end it all, God showed up for her. She saw a vision of a cross that glowed before her. She had been trying to figure out the significance of that vision, and she had found that through The Prisoner’s Journey.” 

“The women all thank us so much at the end of the course. It’s overwhelming! They’re very special relationships because they’re formed in a really safe space in what is otherwise not a very safe space.”

“It’s the greatest privilege of my life so far – to be part of this team is really special. We all grow together.”