Mary Ann France

Vol­un­teer Mary Ann teaches women pris­on­ers sewing and quilt­ing.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - REHABILITATION -

For a decade, Mary Ann France has been teach­ing women at Wiri how to sew. The for­mer pri­mary school teacher runs Quilt-Stitch, a vol­un­teer-led pro­gramme held in­side the prison ev­ery Fri­day and Satur­day.

Us­ing fab­ric and sewing ma­chines do­nated by the public, the women learn the rudi­ments of sewing be­fore be­ing in­tro­duced to the art of quilt­ing. “Most of the girls have to be shown how to thread a nee­dle,” Mary Ann says.

She calls them “the girls”, although their ages range from 18 to 80.

“The Fri­day girls are more ebul­lient, more devil-may-care. The Satur­day girls, who do work-to-re­lease out­side the prison dur­ing the week, are more dis­ci­plined be­cause they are in the work scene,” she says.

Thir­teen pris­on­ers are al­lowed in the class­room with up to four vol­un­teers. “Some bring their ba­bies. It can get a bit rack­ety,” Mary Ann says. Scis­sors are counted out, and counted in.

They start by mak­ing a sim­ple bag and progress to “an­gel quilts”, which are gifted to new­borns at Mid­dle­more Hos­pi­tal. Last year, they worked to­gether on a large quilt that re­flected their lives in prison and was auc­tioned to raise funds for Arts Ac­cess Aotearoa’s suc­cess­ful art-in-pris­ons project.

Mary Ann says quilt­ing sharp­ens nu­mer­acy and lit­er­acy skills, and pro­vides the women with “a safe en­vi­ron­ment and a pro­gres­sive achieve­ment”.

“They have to make choices and de­ci­sions – a lot have never been in that sit­u­a­tion be­fore. I tell them, ‘You are women who have tons of skills that you pos­si­bil­ity won’t know you have yet. Let’s open some win­dows.’ We’re just part of the deal, help­ing them change their lives.”

It’s re­ward­ing, too, for the sewing vol­un­teers. “Some drive for miles to be there, and say it’s the most re­ward­ing thing they’ve ever done.

“I think women who have any sort of skills, or fire in their bel­lies, like to share. We’re not babysit­ters – we want to see change. We’re happy to share what’s in our head and our hands.”

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