Since 2001, we have been conducting a vocational training program in the women's section of the prison. We found that most of the women were in prison because they were homeless, jobless, and had committed petty crimes. With no roof over their head, no heating, no food, and little or no chance of employment because they were unschooled and unskilled, their lives were unbearably difficult, especially in the harsh winter months. If they stole, they could at least eat; if they got caught, prison would provide them with basic shelter and food. Being in and out of prison became a way of life, a vicious cycle.
We decided to attempt to help these women, both through personal counseling and by teaching them a trade that would make them more employable and therefore less likely to return to lives of crime once they were released from prison. "New Hands for New Life" was the answer.
Sponsors in Switzerland provided five sewing machines and continue to support the program. A local company donated two more industrial machines, and hires girls who graduate from the course. Sponsors abroad and local private companies supply the needed materials.
A professional seamstress, whom we hire, gives the actual instruction. We assist her in the weekly classes, channel donated supplies, and offer the women personal encouragement and counseling.
At the end of each three-month course, two representatives from the Ministry of Education give the students a practical examination. Those who pass receive a diploma that enables them to get jobs with many of the 32 private export sewing companies here in Baia-Mare after their release.
When the first girls received their diplomas, it was big news in local newspapers and on TV, in part because this program is the first of its kind since the fall of the Communist regime, and in part because it's being conducted by foreign volunteers, which is also a first.
Here are a few excerpts of responses we have from many of the women we are helping, translated from Romanian and Roma (Gypsy):
"This new skill, which I learned here in the prison because of you, means very much to me because I will be able to work in the future and will never again come under such stress that I wind up in prison. I couldn't be employed before because I never went to school and didn't have any qualifications."
"Normally people can't learn as much in one year as we learn here in three months. It is our good fortune that you are our sponsors."
"I surely believe in miracles! The fact that you're here is a miracle in itself. After I was arrested, I felt isolated from the rest of the world, especially from those who were able to offer spiritual support. Thank you so much for coming here."
Originally Published in 2001.