She’s short. Not much over five feet high. But this height belies the power of a woman on a mission to change her world - one inmate at a time. She’s special because she’s a woman who has worked mainly with men - and not the best kind either. These are men who society has cast off as ‘offenders’, ‘criminals’, ‘hopeless’.
“We impact them by loving them, letting them know that in spite of what they’re going through, we’re here to love them, that God still loves them,” she says passionately. Throughout the interview, she repeatedly emphasises the need to love these fallen men past their failures. And that is what the organisation she founded in 2009 is all about. Friends With A Heart Outreach International was created with the specific aim of helping inmates and ex-offenders to lead better lives and reintegrate into communities.
“People make mistakes, but we have to get to a place where your situation does not determine your future. You may have failed at something, but you are not a failure. Don’t give up on life,” she quietly urges. Then she smiles, leans back, and waits for the next question.
Vivienne Nash, 46, was born in Kingston, Jamaica, though she has spent most of her life in her country of residence, Canada. The challenges in her life came early: at 17, she got pregnant with her only child – a girl. She explains that it wasn’t easy to take care of her daughter and attend school, though she was lucky to have the support of the child’s father, and her own mother.
Then, during her last year of college, she was incarcerated in Fort Augustus in Kingston, Jamaica, after she was caught trafficking drugs.
“It was an ordeal,” she explains, “I learned alot. When you’re in prison, you have a lot of time to sit down and reflect on what you want to do, where you want to go.”
After being released from prison, she went back to Canada, where she started getting serious about her religion: Christianity. According to her, “I realised that I’d tried everything and nothing else worked … . I actually found God in a nightclub ...” – something she admits is a unique experience – “you expect to meet guys and chill at a nightclub, but that’s not what happened for me – at least, I didn’t meet that kinda guy.” And she smiles as she remembers.
“We were the last four persons to leave. There was a heat that came over me. I told my friends I would go outside to wait in the car. When I got to the car, I started crying, started repenting. I remembered stuff back from way back and then the last thing I repented for was all the drugs I brought into the country.”
After that, Vivienne started to turn her life around. She was national director for one of Canada’s largest prison ministries – Prison Fellowship Canada – for three years. During that time, she travelled all across Canada and developed a better understanding of the prison system, becoming increasingly concerned with the limited provisions made for inmate rehabilitation. That was when she got the idea for Friends With A Heart Outreach International (FWAH). She felt the need to use the knowledge she had gained, and the passion she had for helping inmates, to do more for these fallen soldiers.
Her outreach group was registered in Canada in May 2009. The Jamaica arm was registered in 2010. Though both are still in the early development stages, Vivienne explains that these groups are making a difference in the lives of inmates in their host nations.
“We have women going into different institutions in Canada: to the Grand Valley Institution for Women and West Detention Centre. We have about 30 volunteers at the moment. Every Sunday, we have a chapel service, and we do one-on-one mentoring.”
Then she tells me about an exercise she did with inmates at the Tower Street Correctional Centre in Kingston, Jamaica:
“I asked them to just write on a piece of paper -– no names or anything – guilty or innocent. When I got back to my room and sat down to read the notes, most of them said guilty. And that made me realise that they really trusted us. I’m sure they didn’t say that to the judge. But that really affected me and made me want to do more for them.”
Although Vivienne has a secular job, she dreams of the day when she will be able to work in her outreach full-time. Sure, there are days when she gets discouraged, but she says these are the times when she has learnt to encourage herself. Eventually, her goal is that “wherever there’s a prison, we would have some sort of representation … I see us building a facility that will be able to function to its fullness, holistically – like a training centre for people to be trained/equipped to go back into society.”
It’s a big dream. And a small start. But she believes God will help her to achieve it. And she continues to find motivation from the stories she daily hears:
“This one inmate, he said he got involved in criminal activity through politics,” she says. “You know when politicians give young men guns and money for votes? He became an area leader, and I don’t know if the politician became nervous or what, but he reported him to the police and they arrested him. I know he committed murder. He’s told me about that. But, listen, I’m sitting here listening to a young man. I’m hearing the heart of what society calls a criminal. I’m speaking into his life. What I want people to understand is that we’re a Christian organisation but we don’t only deal with with Christians. Our whole purpose is loving people back to destiny.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignment: Profiles