An invitation to present at a secondary school in Broadmeadows provided a wonderful opportunity for an exchange of advice and encouragement between the young people on opposite sides of a youth custodial centre.
Melanie Edwards, CatholicCare’s Youth Justice Chaplain, was asked to deliver several workshops at the Year 11 Social Justice Retreat Day for Penola Catholic College. The workshops would allow Melanie to share her experiences as a chaplain in the Youth Justice Centre in Parkville, linking her work to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and scripture.
To prepare for her workshop at Penola, Melanie spent some time talking with the youth she ministers to discover what they would like to share with young people at schools ‘on the outers’ (as the young people at the Youth Justice Centre refer to life outside of the precinct) about their experiences in custody. Their responses were largely filled with compassionate advice, including things like ‘don’t do drugs; they had a big part in my crime,’ and ‘crime is not worth it, I miss my grandma and my little boy because I do not get to see them’.
At the workshops last week, along with these reflections Melanie also shared with the students some statistics relating to young people sentenced or on remand in 2015-2016, such as: 38% had a family history of parental or sibling imprisonment, 45% had been subject to a previous child protection order, and 62% had previously been suspended or expelled from school. Melanie also gave the Penola students insight into the daily life in the youth justice environment. But in addition to sharing the messages ‘from the inside out’, Melanie felt it was also important to find a way to connect ‘from the outside, in’.
The youth at Parkville’s Youth Justice Centre often ask for inspirational quotes and scripture verses to hang in their room, so Melanie handed out sheets of A5 paper to the Penola students to write their own messages of support and encouragement to the youth in custody. The Penola students embraced this opportunity for connection, and some deeply touching notes were written, such as this example below:
‘To the special person who is fortunate enough to read this,
First of all, you are much more than you might credit yourself to be. Just because you are a few steps back in life does not mean that you can’t be successful and fulfil your purpose. Many successful people did not get where they are without making mistakes. They’re human, just like you.
Don’t give up when people give up on you.
You are not worthless.
Prove yourself wrong.
There is no else like you – you are special.
Melanie’s role as a chaplain in youth justice is to provide spiritual and pastoral care to young people in custody. This involves spending time with them in their school classes and on their units, and engaging with them in groups and on a one to one basis. She also runs a weekly program called FUSION, which, with the help of volunteers, provides mentoring and support for the young people in a positive and welcoming atmosphere. Melanie also offers church services on Sundays.
‘My role could see me playing cards with a young person, doing artwork as I sit beside them, listening to their story as they share, playing games to build and develop connections, helping a young girl write a letter to someone she loves, teaching young people to pray, responding to their questions about faith, shooting hoops on the basketball court, engaging with their families, and supporting them at Parole Board’ says Melanie.
‘I want to help the young people discover their value, even though the youth justice system may be something that a young person experiences as stripping them of their dignity. My challenge is to help them discover their dignity in these circumstances, to know that they are loved, that they are important, that they matter. One way is to help them see that their identity is far greater than their crime and that there are things I would much rather discover about them than their crime.’
Melanie’s workshops at Penola College have helped the Year 11 students gain a deeper understanding of youth in custody and hopefully inspired them to take action, either through prayer, advocacy, fundraising or (when they turn 18) volunteering. Most importantly, the workshops provided an opportunity for connection, an exchange of ideas and appreciation of the unique worth of the individual.
If you would like to help youth in custody by donating or volunteering, you can call us on 9287 5555 or email CatholicCare@ccam.org.au