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Verna McFelin: An ordinary woman made extraordinary

Verna McFelin: An ordinary woman made extraordinary

The award of a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year’s Honours lists caps off an incredible year of recognition and awards for Verna McFelin.

In November 2010, senior staff at Pillars assembled for morning tea in a Ferry Road restaurant. There, Verna was awarded with an Orangi Kaupapa personal award in recognition of her work with the families of prisoners.

In early December 2011, the Beehive called, and Verna was elected, from a strong field, as this year’s recipient of the “Every Child Counts” personal award for achievement in making a difference for children.

The award of the MNZM is further recognition of her work.

But who is Verna McFelin and why is she special? Isn’t she just another woman doing good work in the community?

The answer lies in the fact it was her own personal journey that led her to this point. She is the ultimate kiwi battler, and has been for 25 years.

Born in Oamaru in 1952, the child of fourth generation Oamaru settlers on both sides, Verna had an ordinary early life, attending Waitaki Girls’ High School and working briefly before her marriage. She had four children and was known for her cheerful nature and competent ways.

Verna’s husband, Paul McFelin, was a builder in the area. They were renovating a large homestead and living in it at the same time. In a bombshell for Verna, Paul was arrested for a serious crime and jailed for eleven years. Her youngest child was just a baby. Contemplating leaving Paul, she decided to work to save her marriage and family.

It did not take Verna long to realise, once Paul was arrested, that there was little help and support for the families and children of prisoners. She met other families at prison visiting time and worked to set up support groups. The community organisation Pillars was formed in 1988 to provide a more formal structure.

Pillars has always been an innovative organisation, running a range of group, residential and children’s services over the years. It has held contracts with CYF and Corrections, for support of families, reintegration and other services. Current programmes include intensive social care for families, a mentoring programme for children and a programme teaching senior school students to work effectively with primary school children who have a parent or sibling in prison.

Verna has a particular commitment to the children of prisoners. The Pillars website shows pictures of children under the heading “paying for crimes they did not commit”. Verna runs a high quality mentoring scheme in Auckland and Christchurch, a range of other services for families and the amazing ‘just us’ website, www.justus.org.nz, which was launched by Pillars ambassador and All Black Brad Thorn prior to Christmas 2010.

The aim of the site, which was funded by the Paul Newman Foundation, is to provide clear information for children (and later families and professionals) about what it is like to have a parent in prison. The site may well win awards. It is wonderful and also cute. For example, prison is described as “the place adults are sent by a judge for time out”.

Verna lives and breathes her work with Pillars, working late into the night most days, and 6 days a week. She lives with Paul who runs a small restaurant. Her children are grown up and she is now a Grandmother.

In recent years, Pillars has hosted a high quality research programme on the effects of imprisonment on families and children (http://www.pillars.org.nz/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=130&Itemid=236). The aim is to find the factors that cause inter-generational offending, then work to prevent the children following in parental footsteps. The project has been operating for two years and has engaged the interest and involvement of a wide range of justice and social service agencies, as well as Te Puni Kōkiri. International organisations have also expressed an interest in the findings.

The recognition has been heaped on Verna – she does not seek it for herself. This MNZM is about, for her, recognising some progress in working with the children of prisoners, who too often find themselves sentenced by society for crimes they did not commit. The children of prisoners are seven times more likely to end up in prison than other children, and she believes this must change.

Nothing stops Verna. The smart new tilt slab Pillars premises sunk into the liquefaction in February, but a new home was found in a beautiful villa (and swimming pool) at 136 Springfield Road. Paul and volunteers have done up the grounds, and it is gorgeous.

She has transformed the disaster of a loved family member being sent to prison into a lifetime of service for these most disadvantaged families. “This award is for them”, she says.

© Scoop Media

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