Intrigued by why so many women land up back behind bars soon after their release, Stephanie van Wyk was inspired to change the statistics. By Ncumisa Makhonjwa
‘Around 23 000 people leave prisons every month, but 25 000 more come through the doors because, when they are released, they go back to a life of crime to survive,’ says Stephanie van Wyk, founder of Beauty for Ashes.
This is a grim reality indeed. Over the past 15 years, Stephanie has worked with thousands of women in Pollsmoor Prison, most of whom were driven to crime by circumstance. Her non-profit organisation Beauty for Ashes is a real sanctuary for women who are out on parole. It helps them get back on their feet and prepares them, both mentally and emotionally, to face the world.
Answering a calling
Stephanie, 60, first got a glimpse into what happens in prisons in 1997, when she was invited to be part of an outreach programme team that was working in Pollsmoor. Stephanie decided she’d stay behind after it ended, because she was intrigued by the stories coming from the women behind bars.
Within three years, Stephanie had completed a counselling course and obtained a psychology degree – tools that would be of paramount importance to her and the women she helps.
‘During my time working at the prisons, I’d notice that some of the women who were imprisoned would come back after 18 months or three years,’ she says. Stephanie recalls one tragic incident of a young woman who was released only to later appear on the front page of the Cape Times. She had fallen back into a life of prostitution and been murdered. ‘This devastated me and I immediately went to one of my church members to ask if there was anything we could do.’
For Stephanie, being in such close contact with the women – and seeing how they lacked the skills that could keep them out of jail – inspired her to create a place for paroled women to get access to life skills, counselling and restoration programmes to help them back on their feet.
Making a house a home
The only problem was, Stephanie knew nothing about running a halfway house or the dynamics involved with housing a group of spirited or troubled women. Despite not having enough resources, she still went ahead with it.
‘It was quite an adventure at first! In 2003, we managed to open a halfway house in Observatory,’ Stephanie says.
After being in operation for many years, Beauty for Ashes was formally recognised by the Department of Correctional Services in 2011. ‘Thankfully, they noticed that through the work we do, there is a solution to some of these women’s behaviour,’ she says.
The Department invited Stephanie to Pretoria, where she was asked to share what it was her organisation did and how it made a difference. In 2013, the Department officially came on board as a partner with Beauty for Ashes, helping with some of its projects.
Trying to get funding from other corporations, however, is still a battle. ‘What people need to understand is that we need to help men, women and children who find themselves behind bars for repeated offences. Giving them the necessary support breaks the cycle.’
But Stephanie never gives up, and with the Department of Correctional Services’ and the National Lottery’s help, Beauty for Ashes has managed to provide a home for 72 women in their two halfway houses.
Beauty in everything
Stephanie’s time visiting Pollsmoor and running Beauty for Ashes has had its fair share of memorable and bittersweet moments. Seeing women she’s helped successfully cope with the pressure of life after prison makes the hard work worth it. But learning that some are back behind bars is painful.
‘One memorable moment for me was when a woman who was staying with us and who’d never had an honest job in her life, found work.’ Stephanie recalls. ‘She came to visit us and when she saw me, she picked me up and swung me around saying, “Thank you!” I’ve never been as happy for another person as I was then.’