Natalie Callard (Comfort Kidz volunteer), Joanne Hammerton (Corrections Officer and sewing instructor) and Louise Rogers (Comfort Kidz volunteers) show off completed pikau bags.Unruffled by any suggestions that sewing is “women’s work”, prisoners in Northland Region Corrections Facility’s (NRCF) Kea sewing workshop, are expertly and attentively threading sewing machines, batting colourful quilts, and sewing care bags for vulnerable children.

Working from about 8.30am to 3pm every day from Monday to Friday, these up to ten prisoners have two key goals in mind: giving back to the community and acquiring useful skills.

In the NRCF sewing workshop, prisoners learn to use a standard sewing machine, over-locker, industrial machine and how to design and mark out patterns.“The men are really committed, eager to learn and derive great satisfaction from the fact that their handiwork is helping and bringing comfort to children and families in need,” said Joanne Hammerton NRCF Corrections Officer and sewing workshop instructor. ]

With the support of the Auckland-based Comfort Kidz volunteers and local Northland volunteer, Jan Main, the sewing workshop participants last year started making pikau backpacks for children going into care.

Comfort Kidz is supported by Rotary fundraising efforts and a grant from Howick Local Board in Auckland. Over 600 bags have been made so far and donated to the Multi-agency Centre (MAC) of the Middlemore Health Foundation in Manukau, Auckland.

Comfort Kidz has also stitched up links with residents in Auckland retirement villages who craft woollen blankets that are included in the pikau packs, and this year will receive a Zonta East Auckland Yellow Rose award for Contribution to Community.

The pikau backpacks have become a symbol of care for at least 50 children a month who come to the attention of MAC. For these children aged up to 15, taken from their caregivers after episodes of trauma or abuse, and requiring emergency assessment of their needs, the centre is a temporary haven where interviews with police, medical professionals, and social workers, can take place in a child-friendly environment.

A positive spin-off effect of the pikau bag project, is that Comfort Kidz volunteers now also support and encourage Ms Hammerton and her Kea sewing group in the making of quilts and other hand-crafted items for the local Women’s Refuge and hospitals in Northland.

The sewing workshop participants, furthermore, work with the Bay of Islands charity, Bald Angels, on various projects, and they also make the jumpsuits that offenders wear when they receive visitors.

In the sewing workshop, the prisoners learn to use a standard sewing machine, over-locker, industrial machine and more, and how to design and mark out patterns.

A recent feather in the cap for the prisoners has been a significant contract from the Auckland company, Apparel. The company will bring queen-sized or bigger sheets that have marks, tears or other flaws to the workshop where the prisoners will them into single sheets, pillow cases, and napkins to be donated to Women’s Refuge. Some of the items will also be sold by Apparel at its Whangarei outlet.

Apparel has undertaken to employ suitable prisoners upon their release.

A major commission included in the Apparel contract is for the prisoners to make more than 200 sets of curtains for an ‘iwi curtain bank’ in Moerewa, in response to He Iwi Kotahi Tatou Trust’s concern that some families cannot afford to buy curtains, and are reduced to hanging towels and blankets over their windows.

The NRCF sewing workshop plays a crucial role in equipping offenders with a range of industry-specific and soft skills, including communication and teamwork – not only to enable them to give back to the community, but also to support their rehabilitation and reintegration into society on their release.