Sarah Roberts had quit her teaching job and was stepping out into the unknown when a conversation at Greenbelt kick-started a remarkable vision to link parents in prison with the teachers of their children. Helen Harwood asked her all about it.
HH: Hi Sarah, at Greenbelt 2011 you had a conversation with Jonny Baker about the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course which led to an interesting development. I know that before that you had been exploring several options, and Jonny asked you directly, “What would you pioneer?” Can you tell me a bit about that conversation and what came out of it, please?
SR: I left teaching in July 2011 to take time to explore what the next step might be. Ordination had been a question mark, and before I gave up my job I had worked with three children whose mother was serving a long-term prison sentence, so the idea of doing something with children of prisoners was there somewhere in my mind, too. It wasn’t until Jonny asked me directly, though, what I would pioneer that it suddenly became clear: I would link parents in prison with their children’s teachers, helping them to engage meaningfully in their children’s lives and ensuring that children who are often overlooked get the support they need. It was only in saying it out loud to Jonny that I could see the vision! Jonny then suggested ReSource [mission experience weekends] as a next step in exploring how to take things further.
I know you said before “If you want to discover your vocation, or do something new, ReSource is a pretty good place to start.” Can you explain a bit more about that, please?
Doing ReSource really helped me. Giving up your job and stepping into the unknown is a risky thing to do, and it can feel lonely. The thing that really helped me on the ReSource weekends was knowing that others had walked that way before and I was not alone. To meet people ahead of you on the journey of pioneering something is really encouraging; sharing others’ ups and downs makes your own story seem more possible. I did three ReSource weekends over the course of a year, and each one provided a new friend to connect with; a spiritual insight that was particularly helpful at that time; and a space for creativity to flow. I was able to give shape to my ideas and to bounce ideas off others, and that really helped. There were times during that year that were really hard, too, and ReSource helped me to keep going with my vision and to put one foot in front of the other, even if I couldn’t see the way forward.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship and your visit to Australia and the United States?*
I knew that I needed to flesh out my vision for support for children of prisoners, and having given up my job, I also knew that I needed some funding behind me! I was very fortunate to be awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship which allowed me to travel to Australia and the US visiting various programmes there and figuring out what would work (or not!) in the UK context. It really was an amazing experience speaking to children, imprisoned parents, teachers, social workers, judges, and voluntary sector staff. You see quite a different side of a country when you are in and out of prisons there, and it helped me to really focus on the issues and, more importantly, think about potential solutions. Before I left on my travels, I made contact with a Scottish charity, Families Outside, and shared my vision with them. I wrote a blog for them and kept in touch during my Fellowship, and when I got back to Scotland my relationship with them grew and developed to the point that I am now employed as their Child and Family Support Manager – that still feels like a miracle to me!
What about support, both financial and spiritual/emotional. Can you explain a bit about what is in place for your and what sustains you?
I have had some extraordinary support throughout this journey, and I could not have embarked on this without a network of people who have been there in all manner of ways (friends to cry with and laugh with). I remember gathering some friends for dinner before I decided to give up my job and step into the unknown. I talked them through a storyboard I had made (pictures, words, poems), and it felt like we made the decision together which gave me the confidence to say yes to the unknown. One of the first things I did when I left teaching was to go on a five day silent retreat, and that experience has underpinned so much of what has happened since. I try to build in times of silence and reflection (I am still not very good at it!) and I have found Spiritual Direction enormously helpful, too. Financially, I have been blown away by the provision I have received, and the timings of people’s gifts – like the people in my church who gave me a cheque for the exact amount needed to fix my car (without knowing that amount!). What sustains me most is having a weekly rhythm that creates space for prayer and reflection and a community of people around me with whom I can be honest.
Can you tell us any stories from the people, especially the children; you have met on this journey?
There are so many stories! I have met some amazing children on this journey, and they remain the reason why I do what I do. I remember watching two boys visiting their dad in an Australian prison. It was a special visit which meant that children had four hours with their dads without their other carers (mums, grandmothers, etc.) there. These boys played cricket with their dad and then did a barbeque for the rest of the group – as they barbequed, they chatted together about normal things, and for that time it was like their dad wasn’t a prisoner, just a dad. I spoke to them afterwards and they beamed with delight at having enjoyed the afternoon together; although in prison, their dad is still their dad, and they need him. Another boy I met in the States really made an impression on me. He had been bullied at school about having a mum in prison, but a teacher had reached out to him and had helped him start a support group for other young people affected by imprisonment. He told me, “I think all teachers should get a kind of lesson about what it’s like for kids like me.” Those words really stuck in my mind, and at Families Outside we are now taking teachers all over Scotland into prison to help them enter into the stories of children whose parents (or siblings, grandparents, step-parents, etc.) are in prison. It is making a huge impact on teachers and helping them to reach out sensitively to, and walk compassionately alongside, some of society’s most vulnerable families. All because of one boy’s throwaway comment!
What do you think the future holds?
If I have learnt anything over this last while it is that the future is best left unknown – that is both deeply frustrating but also incredibly freeing at the same time! Having worked briefly in Congo with CMS and spent quite a bit of time in Africa since then, my other passion is that amazing continent and its people. Next week I am travelling to Uganda to take part in an international conference on children of prisoners; if you had told me that I would be able to combine both of my passions into one, I would never have believed it! So, to answer the question, I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that I am called to live in the here and now – today is the gift and the adventure!
Lastly, Sarah, how can we pray for you? And is there anything else happening you want to tell us about?
I would really appreciate prayers as I settle into my role with Families Outside. I love my job, but there are challenges, too, and I sometimes struggle to maintain a healthy work/life balance! I am also quite involved in my church community and would appreciate prayers for wisdom in what to say ‘yes’ to and what to say ‘no’ to.
*A full report of Sarah’s Travelling Fellowship is available from www.familiesoutside.org.uk