Ten people on community work sentences in Gore are learning flax weaving skills as part of the Work and Living Skills component of their sentence.

Programmes like this course serve two purposes, says Corrections Gore Service Manager, Angela Casey. “First, this is a culturally relevant programme which gives offenders the opportunity to learn some tikanga as well as the kaupapa (rules) of harakeke (flax). This is a traditional skill they can use outside the programme and can pass on to their families.

“Underlying this, the programme also provides a vehicle for us to support the offenders to develop further cultural, employment and personal skills; to build their confidence, communication and team skills; and to feel the pride that comes from learning a new skill and completing a project.”

As well as learning the art of flax weaving with kawa and tikanga, for offenders who are parents, basket weaving can offer a very useful pastime and opportunity for creating a small income for the family. It offers great flexibility and can fit around schooling and other parenting commitments.

The programme, facilitated by Kay Lawton in conjunction with Southern REAP, is held at the Te Whanau O Hokonui Marae and runs for six sessions over six weeks.

The flax weaving is part of Corrections’ Work and Living Skills (WLS) programmes. Through WLS, offenders learn a range of basic life and employment skills to help them maintain their commitment to a life without further offending.

Offenders who have been sentenced to 80 hours or more of community work may be eligible to convert up to 20 per cent of their community work hours into WLS.

In 2016, 714 hours of WLS training was undertaken by the 101 offenders on community work sentences in Gore. These offenders contributed over 11,000 hours of labour to community work.

Other basic skills taught include health and safety, literacy and numeracy, basic job skills (computer skills, CV writing skills), cooking, parenting, budgeting, tikanga Maori programmes and health, alcohol, drug and gambling education. It also offers an opportunity for the community to become involved in improved public safety with community groups and volunteers supporting a wide range of skills programmes across the country.

“A large proportion of the people we work with on community sentences are unemployed,” Ms Casey says.

“They walk away from programmes like this with a new, useful skill, and also with the knowledge that they can learn, the confidence that they can take on something new, that seems difficult, and do it. They are tasting success and learning to learn again.

“These are the self-beliefs that help people sustain a new start, that gives them the confidence to do something new with their families or with employment, and which ultimately leads to more harmonious families and safer communities.”

The Probation Officer behind the initiative, Siobhan Yarker, says she has noticed a difference in a number of offenders on the programme. They are showing signs of progress in the skills they have learnt, expressing their enjoyment of the programme and enthusiasm to complete what they are making.

“We are noticing improvement in their social skills and respect for each other,” she says.

“They are showing improved understanding of cultural difference, sharing and helping each other. The main thing I have noticed is an improvement in their patience and concentration levels. They are concentrating on the task at hand and not becoming frustrated with themselves and the project.”

There is a great sense of pride and achievement in what they are doing, Ms Yarker says.

“For many of the people involved, they have had very few positive achievements in their lives. At one of our graduations last year, an offender told us that this was the first certificate he had ever received. This was an emotional and powerful moment for everyone in the room. He wouldn’t be the only one.

“I think that programmes, like the weaving, are a fantastic way of introducing new working and living skills for offenders who have had limited learning in the past. The programme provides an environment that is relaxing, therapeutic and educational. They respond well and appear to respect the tutor and tutor helpers, where positive behaviours and good morals and values are apparent.”

Ms Yarker says she is passionate about adult learning and further education. Over the years, she has identified that many offenders, young adults and adults were not ready to learn when they are younger. “Emotionally and mentally they had a block to learning, due in large part to having had hard upbringings and suffered in a variety of ways. But, no one is ever too old to learn and improve their skills, all it takes is encouragement, patience, having the opportunity to do it and the right environment in which to learn. In time positive change can take place, little steps, paced out for individual learning are stepping stones to self-achievement. And with this comes real, sustainable change.”