Pillars founder Verna McFelin talks to Joanna Wane about her life inside and outside the prison wire.
People have long memories in a small town like Ōamaru. Not everyone is prepared to forgive the past, even four decades on, or willing to forget it.
Verna McFelin was born in Ōamaru, like four generations before her on both sides of the family. It's where she met her husband, Paul, when they were both teenagers, where she gave birth to their four children, and where they opened the town's first pizza parlour.
In 1983, it's where police converged on the family's house late one night and arrested Paul for the kidnapping at gunpoint of 14-year-old Gloria Kong, the daughter of a local Chinese family. McFelin, who had a six-week-old baby at the time, watched in shock as her husband was handcuffed in front of their screaming children.
And last week, it's where McFelin had planned to launch her memoir, The Invisible Sentence, at Ōamaru's public library. Instead, the event was pulled at short notice after a social-media squall revealed that McFelin, who turns 70 next year, wasn't entirely welcome back in her hometown.
Word that she'd been cancelled had come out of the blue just before Canvas turned up on her doorstep for this interview and a photoshoot at Christchurch Men's Prison, where many of the staff still know her by name.
That morning, she'd had a phone call to say concerns raised by some members of the public meant the library — as the "living room of the community" — was no longer able to host the launch.
"Gutted is the word for it, but not surprised, because I've had this all my life," she said, clearly thrown off balance by the news. "I can see their side of things; people could still be quite raw and traumatised. But it's precisely what the book was written about — that it's not our crime, but it's still our sentence. And how families continue to serve that invisible sentence on the outside of the wire."
Later that day, McFelin emailed me to say she'd decided not to look for an alternative venue, out of respect for the community. Instead, a small gathering will be held next Thursday at the church she attends in Christchurch.
"It's important to me that people aren't left feeling uncomfortable or affected," she wrote. "I hadn't considered that at the time I decided to have a book launch in Ōamaru. So many people were and are so supportive of me and the children, and I really wanted to go back and publicly thank Ōamaru for their support."
Despite some heated words being exchanged on the Facebook page, Ōamaru Today, the majority of public opinion has continued to swing in behind McFelin. "No one denies the trauma for Gloria and her family, but what has been achieved here through the justice system and Verna is phenomenal," wrote one supporter. Waitaki District Libraries manager Jenny Bean told the Ōamaru Mail the library would stock her book - a remarkable account of the challenges McFelin faced following her husband's conviction, and her decision to seek out a new purpose in life instead of losing herself in anger and shame.
In 1988, she founded Pillars, an internationally recognised organisation that runs a mentoring programme for children who have a parent in prison, and are up to nine times more likely to end up in jail themselves by their early 20s.
Wraparound support services include free Infants2Teens health assessments, home visits by whānau workers and practical help navigating the justice system. In partnership with Corrections, Pillars Family Pathway Centres stocked with books and toys have been opened at Christchurch and Invercargill men's prisons to create a space where fathers can interact more naturally with their children during visits — a world away from the often stark, intimidating environments the McFelins remember.
The seeds for Pillars grew from an informal support group McFelin formed with six other women whose partners were also doing time at Paremoremo, the maximum-security prison in Auckland where Paul began serving his 11-year sentence. When one of the women who'd travelled over from Waiheke Island for her weekly visit didn't have enough money for the return fare, everyone gave what they could spare to get her back home.
"None of us went without because we would look out for each other," McFelin writes in her book. "This was the spark that started me thinking about the much-needed support for families and children living in the shadows of the prison world."
McFelin stood by her man (more on that later), and they put down roots in Christchurch after his release from jail, on their 20th wedding anniversary.
More than 1000 young people aged 5 to 17 have now been through the mentoring programme at Pillars, which has developed a Bill of Rights for the children of prisoners (based on a US model) and aims to break the intergenerational cycle of offending.
It's estimated about 23,000 children in New Zealand have a parent in prison. Research shows they're not only more likely to end up with a criminal record than their peers but are also at much higher risk of mental health problems and long-term unemployment.
In a sign of how highly the organisation's work is regarded, in 2018 Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand's official wedding gift to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle would be a $5000 donation to Pillars. There's a YouTube clip of the couple visiting a Pillars centre later that year, with McFelin — a pint-sized force of nature with blonde pre-Raphaelite curls — beaming in the background. So, she's Team Meghan then? "Of course!" she says, laughing.
McFelin parted ways with Pillars last July, after her position as chief executive was made redundant and the head office was moved to Auckland. After three decades at the helm, she admits the board's decision came as a shock. "There's been a lot of grief around it," she says. "But I've moved on now."
With time on her hands finally, she poured out her life story, producing the first instalment of her memoirs in a matter of weeks. A sequel, Pillars of Strength, is already on the way. Simply written in snackable chapters, The Invisible Sentence begins with a vivid description of the night Paul was arrested. Her daughter Lisa, then aged 9, hid under her parents' bed and was so traumatised by the experience that as an adult, she's blocked it from her memory.
The children were bullied at school after the family moved to Christchurch, where Paul was placed on remand. Jacqui, the eldest, eventually ended up on the streets, twice overdosing from drugs. The family's homestead in Ōamaru, which they were rebuilding after a fire, was sold to cover costs — including more than $90,000 in legal fees not only for her husband but also for his sister, one of Paul's three accomplices in the kidnapping.
During the seven years he ended up serving in jail — transferring from Christchurch to Auckland and back again — the children attended 12 schools as McFelin moved the family to maintain a close relationship with their father. In the main, says McFelin, they lived on the benefit and charity. Later, when their long-time insurance company discovered Paul had a criminal record, it cancelled their policies.
The book is filled both with acts of casual cruelty and unexpected gestures of kindness. The title, says McFelin, speaks to the burden of associated guilt that falls on a prisoner's family, who usually suffer alone and in silence. "The other term [the Paremoremo support group] used was the living death; you could never grieve the loss, because it was ongoing all the time," she says. "You lived in the prison world and you lived on the outside. They were totally different worlds and you had to separate the two."
It's a tribute to McFelin sheer force of personality that her close-knit family emerged intact. All three of their daughters went through university and their son has his own business. In total, they've produced seven grandchildren.
Many will struggle to comprehend her decision to stick with Paul. Equally difficult to understand is that they've barely discussed what happened or why. In the book, she simply describes the kidnapping as completely out of character. A $120,000 ransom was demanded for Kong, before she was abandoned, bound and blindfolded, in an isolated hay barn — but McFelin says she and Paul had no financial problems and were "quite comfortably off".
"He doesn't understand it himself," she says. "I had a 12-year-old girl at the time so I could totally relate to how it must have been for Gloria and her family. Absolutely horrific. I hated him for what he did. I had to decide, would I stay or go?"
And this is the other element of the book many will find confronting. McFelin isn't just a committed Christian; she speaks in tongues, sees visions and has a direct line to God. Eight months after Paul was arrested, she was lying in bed one night and had a "godly experience" that changed everything.
"My whole life did a shift," she tells me. "All of that hate went and I forgave him. Whether I would have been able to do that without it, I don't know. But it gave me a purpose. Paul is a lovely man. A lovely grandfather, and very supportive of me. I'm not someone who dwells on the past, but I like to think that whatever has happened in the past can be used for some good."
Despite the depth of her faith, McFelin was clear from the start that Pillars would be a non-Christian organisation that was open to everyone. Sir Kim Workman, a lifelong campaigner for reform in the justice system, got to know McFelin well during his time with Prison Fellowship NZ in the mid-90s, and was by her side when she received an Order of Merit award in 2011.
"I think I knew she was Christian, but she wasn't someone who spouted her faith to anyone. I never saw her in that light," he recalls. "I have such great respect and admiration for Verna. She was very determined and could be immovable on matters of principle. It didn't matter what you threw at her, she shrugged her shoulders and moved forward. She might have recognised some of those characteristics in me."
Last year, Kim was appointed to the Parole Board. He says around half of relationships break down when a partner goes to prison, and offenders coming up for release often talk about the devastating impact their sentence has had on their kids. In some cases, women feel vulnerable left alone on the outside and move on to another partner quite quickly as an act of self-protection. However, that doesn't always augur well for the children.
"When there's a non-biological male in the house, that's when sexual and physical abuse can happen," he says. "One of the things Verna was able to do well is explain that to people who don't think about the secondary victims, and that the wider whānau suffers too."
Pillars mentor Nancy McShane signed up for the programme about seven years ago and was paired with a young girl, Chelsea, who was about to turn 8. She's now at high school and they've developed a close relationship, spending every Sunday together.
When McShane first met Chelsea, her mother and four siblings were living in a small, sparsely furnished house with no carpet or wallpaper. "It was like something out of "Hogan's Heroes", and her mother just looked exhausted," she says.
McShane has helped Chelsea get on top of her school work — last year, she was awarded a certificate for most-improved reader — and they've set goals for her to work towards potential career paths as either a chef or an early childhood teacher. Pillars has paid for a babysitting course and cooking lessons, as well as funding Chelsea's soccer club fees and finding her a secondhand bike, so she can become more independent.
"Being able to make a difference in the life of a child and give them opportunities to experience things they're not normally exposed to is incredibly meaningful and has really enriched my life," McShane says. "That's what people don't realise about mentoring. It's not a one-way process. It's one of the highlights of my weekend to spend time with Chelsea. I just love her. She's like family to me."
McFelin reckons she's not an emotional person, but stories from mentors like McShane get her going. "They just blow me away," she says. "I cannot stop thinking about how incredible these people are. They've stepped up to give their time voluntarily and make a difference, not just to that child but to future generations."
McFelin's book, blog posts and a video of her "Invisible Children" TEDx talk are available at wildsidepublishing.com.