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COVID-19 means new ways of working for Volunteer Coordinators

Detail of a quilt, made by women in Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility
Eleven pieces of colourful art made by men in Auckland Prison
Auckland Prison volunteer Gwen Taylor with Lesley Weavers, Regional Volunteer Coordinator
“You can’t beat face-to-face interactions but we’re constantly coming up with alternatives while we’re on this COVID-19 journey," says Stephen Jones.

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“You can’t beat face-to-face interactions but we’re constantly coming up with alternatives while we’re on this COVID-19 journey. The restrictions and lack of onsite access certainly have their challenges. However, it’s about learning new ways of working, thinking outside the square and doing the best we can with what we have.”

Stephen Jones is Regional Volunteer Co-ordinator, Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility, and one of 18 Volunteer Coordinators who work across New Zealand’s 18 prisons.

Like most New Zealanders in the workforce, he and his colleagues are learning to adapt to the impact of COVID-19 in their workplaces.

“At Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility, we’re reinventing volunteering so it can be contactless, whenever required,” Stephen says. “Our wonderful volunteers are creating workbooks that we can print and produce for the wāhine. And they’re also delivering resources such as fabrics and quilting patterns, books and jigsaw puzzles.”

Statistics from In the Department’s 2020/2021 financial year show there were 1300 active volunteers who spent a total of 13,000 hours delivering programmes and services inside all of New Zealand’s 18 prisons, says Roslyn Hefford, Principal Advisor, Department of Corrections.

Role of volunteer coordinators

Volunteer coordinators are responsible for engaging, training, administering and monitoring volunteers, who offer a range of arts and crafts classes, along with life skills, literacy and numeracy, and cultural and religious services.

Roslyn is responsible for implementing Mahi Aroha: Corrections’ Volunteer Strategy, which aims to strengthen the induction and training of volunteers, support volunteer co-ordinators and encourage more people to volunteer.

“Volunteers are role models and teach valuable skills to prisoners. They also provide an important link to local communities,” Roslyn says. “Bringing people into the prison helps create a sense of normalcy, and encourages better behaviour and pro-social living.”

“Immense value” in arts programmes

Ghissy Lee, Regional Volunteer Coordinator at Mt Eden Corrections Facility in Auckland, says there’s “immense value” in arts programmes, including those run by volunteers.

“I’m a huge fan of learning through play or creativity to engage people who have struggled through school,” she says. “Many of the men at Mt Eden Corrections Facility have incredible artistic skills whether it’s drawing, music, rapping or poetry. For me, it’s important to give them an opportunity to express their creativity in a way that can benefit them down the track.”

Three of the arts programmes Ghissy manages are Youth Arts NZ’s Te Kāhui Creative Writing Programme aimed at rangatahi; Meditative Art run by Giulia and Dinny of Art Yoga; and crocheting classes run by Lissy Robinson-Cole and Rudi Robinson.

“Understandably, we haven’t been able to have in-person programmes since August 2021 when Auckland went into lockdown,” Ghissy says. “This has been upsetting for staff, volunteers, and the men in our care wanting to make active efforts to learn and change.

“A bright light is Te Kāhui Creative Writing Programme, where more than 100 men are able to work through the exercise booklets and get feedback on their writing if they wish.”

Ghissy says that many of her volunteers work in teams and so these teams are staying connected beyond the prison. “I also try to send out occasional updates and they have also helped by sending resources for individuals or groups.”

Funding from the Department of Corrections’ Regional Volunteer Fund Request

The third Volunteer Coordinator interviewed is also from the Auckland region. Lesley Weavers is Regional Volunteer Coordinator at Auckland Prison. She says funding from the Department of Corrections’ Regional Volunteer Fund Request to purchase art supplies for the Creative Art programme has meant the volunteer is able to provide a professional programme with adequate resources.

“Everyone can do art and the men love the Creative Art programme, delivered by our volunteer Gwen Taylor,” Lesley Weaver says. “Gwen is a fantastic teacher and the men really appreciate what she provides.”

The six-week programme runs once a week for around two hours per session. It runs throughout the year from February to December with short breaks between each course so Lesley can co-ordinate the new participants.

“When the green light is given for volunteers to return to Auckland Prison, this programme will start up again as soon as possible,” she says.

Gwen has been a teacher for more than 30 years and has been volunteering at Auckland Prison since 2018. “I see myself as a facilitator rather than a teacher. I give them some ideas and they take off with them and create amazing artwork.

“Creating art is a form of self-expression that affirms them as artists and can reinforce their cultural identity. My class is a safe place where they can let their guard down and relax. They sometimes tell me it’s meditative and their concentration is such that often you can hear a pin drop.

“For me, the art class fulfils the basic psychological needs we all have – things like affirmation of our identity, acceptance, individual attention and a feeling of safety.”

Further information: 

The Department of Corrections has around 1700 volunteers working in prisons on a regular basis. If you have an artistic skill you would like to share, visit the Department’s website for more information. 

Written by

Arts Access Aotearoa

3 Mar 2022

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