Claire Meijnderts Brings Hope to Children of Prisoners       

Claire Meijnderts

Claire Meijnderts, a devoted ‘Mum’ to hundreds of children. (Photo: Julie Nance)  

Story by Julie Nance

For two decades Claire Meijnderts of Blaxland has been a beacon of hope for children facing the challenges of having incarcerated parents. As a tireless volunteer leader of Camp for Kids, she has helped transform hundreds of lives and played a pivotal role in steering young people away from the justice system. While raising her family alongside husband Jeff, Claire has been a devoted foster Mum and has worn many other volunteer hats.


Key Points:

  • There are an estimated 60,000 children under 16 years of age in New South Wales who have experienced parental incarceration; at least one in five are Indigenous children. The children of incarcerated parents face family instability and risks of criminality similar to those of their parents before them. (Source: Children of incarcerated parents: Insights to addressing a growing public health concern in Australia.)
  • Claire helps break the generational cycle by giving children of prisoners aged 8 to 12 a safe space to have fun, connect with peers in similar situations, and gain positive role models to look up to.

With each passing day at camp, the children grow in confidence. There’s lots of laughter, friendship and newfound hope. As a leader of Camp for Kids, Claire witnesses children gaining a sense of belonging, while learning valuable interpersonal skills and problem-solving alternatives to “hitting out”. Through volunteers like Claire, they discover their stories matter and that healing is possible.

“The benefit of camp is that every child has a similar background; they’ve all got a parent or both parents in prison and that’s unique,” Claire says. “They can’t go to school and talk about it. They carry a lot of shame and guilt that is not theirs to carry. They are in fact victims of their parents’ decisions.”

Camp for Kids is one of the many Christian-based programs funded by Prison Fellowship Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that supports men and women in prison and their families. The camp offers children opportunities for growth and personal development, with lots of fun in the mix.  Flying foxes, abseiling, billy cart making, art and craft, cooking and team challenges are just some of the activities on offer.  

abseiling

An abseiling challenge. (Photo supplied)

The journey from a gift to camp  

Each year Prison Fellowship Australia invites inmates to take part in Angel Tree, a program that provides birthday and Christmas presents for their children. Last year, with support by churches and input from prisoners, 795 children across NSW received a gift at Christmas, with a note from their incarcerated parent. The children were then invited to take part in Camp for Kids.

Steve Farr, NSW/ACT State Manager for Prison Fellowship Australia, says Claire has been a key player in Camp for Kids’ success. He is currently fundraising to allow the expansion of the program through Regional NSW.

“We want to build on the foundation Claire has laid and amplify her work so more children can attend camp and be mentored,” Steve says. “Claire has the stability and maturity that makes her an amazing ‘camp Mum’.”

Steve says many of the children who attend camp are not used to walking into an environment where they are valued, encouraged and championed. “We aim to connect these kids with mentors who become buddies and have the chance to go on a journey with them,” he says.

Each year the camp is run at a different location, including in the Blue Mountains and on the Central Coast. 

building go karts

Building go-karts is a great team-building activity. (Photo supplied)

Claire says the majority of camp attendees are cared for by grandparents, another relative or are in foster care. They often have a history of broken relationships, being moved from home to home from a young age.

“There’s uncertainty for them around where they’re going to go next or how long they’re going to be there, which then impacts their schooling and their learning ability,” Claire says. “They become more anxious or can’t concentrate because they’re always focusing on those other elements that are more important to them; their stability and security in life.”

Many children have behavioural issues, mirroring violence they have witnessed or experienced themselves. At camp the ratio is two adults per child. Learning how to peacefully deal with issues is an important part of the program. Children listen intently to guest speakers who have travelled down similar, challenging roads in the past.  

Claire says she is moved by the stories children share with her and their peers. There are tales of traumatic home lives and matter-of-fact mentions of crimes committed by their parents. Murder, robbery and drug-related offences are part of their vocabulary. 

“It’s very humbling that you’re trusted with such a story when you think we only see them four days a year,” Claire says.

You’ve got to be strong for the kids, but I go to bed at night sometimes and I’m bawling. You wonder ‘how can this happen to these kids and their families?’ – Claire Meijnderts

With the camp’s cut-off age of 12, Claire says there is a lot of emotion involved when children are no longer able to attend. To address this, she introduced a Junior Leader program where selected young people are mentored by adults and help run games and other activities.  

“Our Junior Leader program started getting a roll on and we had up to 30 junior leaders,” says Claire, who fundraises in her spare time to buy gifts for the kids. “We still get many of those junior leaders back as adult volunteers now.”

Claire says it’s a real joy to hear the choices young people make as they navigate their way into adulthood.

“It’s great to hear they are working now, they’ve got their own place or they’ve got their own children,” she says. “It’s just nice to hear they’re on the straight and narrow because the whole purpose of the camp is to try and break the cycle so that these kids don’t end up following in their parents’ footsteps into that system. We hear very few kids that have been through camp that have actually ended up in the system which is awesome.”

sarah Meijnderts

Claire’s daughter Sarah preparing gifts for camp (photo supplied).

As part of the mentorship aspect of the camp, many of the children have kept in touch with Claire over the years. Amongst the former camp attendees is a chef, a hairdresser, a McDonalds manager and a gym fitness worker.    

Called to be a foster Mum   

Bringing up four children with Jeff in the Blue Mountains, Claire always felt drawn to ads calling for foster carers. Once their own brood was older, with only two left at home, the couple started providing respite care to children with disabilities, for Anglicare. After a year of training, they became qualified foster carers.

“When you get to the teenage years, it’s very hard to find long term foster homes,” Claire says. “Amy joined our family at the age of 12 and she is now 25. One weekend became school holidays, became one school term and then it was permanent.” 

Claire admits fostering requires a great deal of patience and comes with a lot of challenges. However, she stresses it is also very rewarding: “I get beautiful Mother’s Day cards from Amy saying ‘you’re the best mum in the world’.”

claire and jeff Meijnderts

Dynamic duo Claire and Jeff. (Picture supplied).

Reflecting on a life of volunteering

Claire is a modest person and unless prompted, she wouldn’t have mentioned her other volunteer gigs on top of her Camp for Kids’ commitment.   

“My whole life has been volunteering because I haven’t had a career,” she says. “Whether it was running a playgroup, being on the committee at preschool, running the school canteen, I’ve always done that sort of thing. At the moment I visit elderly people in nursing homes with Belong Blue Mountains. There’s always needy people out there that need something. I just feel that’s where I can give.”


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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.


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About Julie Nance

Julie Nance is a community storyteller with the Blue Mountains Planetary Health Initiative. In her coverage of the Lower Mountains area, she brings 30 years’ experience in communications, publishing and journalism. After specialising in health and social issues as a journalist, Julie led creative teams in the government and not-for-profit sectors including the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission, YMCA NSW, Cancer Council NSW and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Julie is passionate about empowering people with quality information to help them make informed choices.

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