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Former jailbird grateful for second chance

By Sandra Conchie

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Esmeralda Smith is one of the 10 women offenders who have just graduated from an intensive rehabilitation programme - Strengthening Foundations for Women.
Esmeralda Smith is one of the 10 women offenders who have just graduated from an intensive rehabilitation programme - Strengthening Foundations for Women.

Esmeralda Smith has a long history of offending, mainly for driving offences, and has twice been to prison.

The 44-year-old Tauranga mother of eight and grandmother of three says she is a changed woman with a "new attitude and strong determination" to stay off the offending treadmill.

"Not just for my sake but for the sake of my children and grandchildren," she said.

Ms Smith first came before the courts at 18 and since then she has clocked up numerous convictions, including two for arson in 2008, one that involved torching a garage.

During the past eight weeks she participated in an intensive rehabilitation programme for female offenders - Whakamanahia Wahine - Strengthening Foundations for Women course.

On Thursday, she was one of the 10 women who graduated from the course run by Presbyterian Support Northern in conjunction with the Corrections Department through its Innovation Fund.

The course was co-facilitated by Jude Simpson, the Family Works family violence prevention advocate, "It's Not OK" campaign ambassador who is also a survivor of family violence.

A similar highly successful pilot programme was run last year.

At the graduation ceremony at The Lighthouse Church in Welcome Bay, Ms Smith and the other graduates shared insights about how they had used the course to make positive changes in their lives, and the lives of their families.

Ms Smith said when she was first told she was going on the course she was a bit "sceptical" about what she would learn, but two weeks in, she was "buzzing".

She credits the person she is today to the "amazing journey" she has just been on.

"Most of my past offending has involved driving offences. I kept driving cars when I didn't have a licence. This time I was put on nine months' home detention.

"Once I'm finished my sentence in September, I'm determined to remain offence-free and work on making something of my life."

Ms Smith said she was excited about the future.

"This course has been amazing. It's not only boosted my self-esteem but helped me to make better choices and better decisions. Being a repeat offender, I had a lot of family issues and having worked with Jude and the other women, I now feel so much stronger to do something about it."

Ms Smith said she was working on several goals, including her plan to follow in Ms Simpson's footsteps to mentor other women offenders and volunteer at Bay Community Law Centre. Each graduate also gets to work with a mentor for at least six months.

Tauranga Corrections Department service manager Mark Nijssen said Ms Smith had been a "frequent flyer" with the service until going on the course.

"Esmeralda has made significant personal progress over the duration of the programme. She appears fully focused on her and her family's future.

"She is far more confident and hearing her talk about the changes she is making reassures me that she is living the programme and it is not just a tick in the box for attendance for her."

About 500 offenders are subject to rehabilitative sentences in the Tauranga/Te Puke area, and about 15 per cent are women, he said.

Anne Overton, Presbyterian Support Services North community mission adviser, said the women who graduated were markedly different from the people who started the course.

"What Jude does really well is help these women to put all the junk in their lives aside to identify all their talents and skills. From there they learn how to harness these gifts so they can move forward in their lives," she said.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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