Chocolate heaven for women determined to turn their lives around
Published on 29 April 2019
Women who have had a brush with the law are turning their lives around by making luxury handmade chocolates.
The work has boosted their self-esteem, self-confidence, resilience and created a pathway into meaningful employment.
Joyce Murray, founder of community interest company Positive Changes which makes Grace Chocolates, said the 20 women who have engaged with the seven-week programme to date are making good progress.
She added that she has enormous empathy for the victims of crime and it is in the public interest to break the cycle of re-offending.
Evidence shows that having a job, a home and good family relationships helped achieve this but women with criminal records face huge barriers to employment due to issues like lack of qualifications and low self-esteem.
Grace Chocolates was established in September 2017 and is based in a Church of Scotland hall near Stirling.
Boosting self esteem
Over a 12-month period, a team of up to six volunteers working with women just one day a week made around 19,000 white, milk and dark chocolate truffles.
The unique flavours include banoffee, coffee and cardamom and lemon and ginger.
The women are awarded certificates and qualifications through courses and training.
One of them, Mary, said making chocolates had changed her "whole world" for the better.
"I used to be a drug user and I kept getting the jail all the time," she said.
"I was put on a court order and got involved with Positive Changes.
"It is a lot more than just a chocolate making company and words cannot easily describe how my life has been turned round 360 degrees.
"When I first started the course I was dead quiet and withdrawn.
"But my self-esteem and self-confidence is now sky high by comparison.
"It has given me structure in my life, I love every minute of it and cannot wait to get up in the morning and go to work.
"It is such a brilliant place to be and Joyce is so supportive and encouraging."
Mary said her friends and family have noticed a big difference in her since she has been making chocolates.
"I am told that I am glowing all the time and putting weight on," she added.
"I am trying as hard as I can to not to go back to my old life."
Another woman called Angela said volunteering at Grace Chocolates had given her a "new purpose".
"I have learned how to be normal again," she added.
"It is such a great programme and the training and experience is helping to get me ready to move into the workplace.
"It has given me back my self-esteem, self-confidence and has been a great foundation from which to rebuild my life.
"It has given me belief in myself again."
Angela said she could not recommend the programme highly enough to women who have been touched by the criminal justice system.
"I am fully determined to ensure that my past will stay in the past," she added.
"I want to be part of the workforce, be a good mother again, a good family member and just start living again."
Mrs Murray said she became interested in helping people turn their lives around after she started volunteering at the family hub at HMP Cornton Vale near Stirling which opened in 2013.
"The aim of Positive Changes is to support any woman who has touched the Scottish criminal justice system towards fulfilling employment," she added.
"We tailor the support to meet their individual needs, offering work experience, qualifications and a range of support from partnership agencies.
"It costs taxpayers £65,000 to put a woman in prison and a further £45,000 each year she remains and that is before taking into account the cost in financial and human terms to the women's family, children, society and those directly affected by crime.
"Breaking the cycle of re-offending is good for the public purse, communities and society."
Mrs Murray, who leads the work to make the chocolates which can be bought online and at outlets including the Scottish Parliament shop, said the change in the women can be profound.
"I am seeing very anxious, nervous people coming in," she added.
"They have had difficult experiences and have been belittled for mistakes they have made.
"We have given them back a little bit of their self-respect that allows them to move forward with their lives."
Break the cycle
Mrs Murray said she had been very moved by the responses from women who were asked what flavour of chocolate they would be.
"One said they would be coffee and cardamom because she doesn't like coffee and she did not like herself but she is getting better," she added.
"Another said she was mint and lime because she is a bit spicy and a bit sour.
"A lady said she would be pineapple and coconut because she has a big heart and big flavour."
Mrs Murray said she did not condone crime.
"We have tried hanging and flogging and sending people to the other side of the world and that has not worked," she added.
"This is an option to try something different.
"The women who come here have served punishments that the courts have issued.
"It is about moving on and breaking the cycle of re-offending."
Rev Dan Harper is a Church of Scotland minister within the Presbytery of Stirling and is fully supportive of Positive Changes.
"Jesus said that we are to feed the hungry and set the prisoner free," he added.
"He is not talking about breaking into prison and cutting shackles off, what he is talking about is freeing people from the things that bind them and hold them hostage.
"Positive Changes is freeing the ladies to allow them to grow to be the people that God made – wonderful, worthwhile people capable of love, compassion and hope."
Mr Harper said Christians believe that people are forgiven for past mistakes if they look to God and ask for forgiveness.
"Everyone has made mistakes of some kind," he added.
"The church is for all people from all sections of society because God loves each one of us for who we are, whether we like it or not or know it or not.
"To be a church that represents the Kingdom of God on earth, we need to reach out to those who feel lost, lonely and hopeless and tell them that they matter.
"It is a real pleasure to support anyone making chocolate who does that too."