MELISSA | Australia
From Victim to Victor: A Story of Healing
It was more than a decade ago, but Melissa Hutton still vividly remembers the day she was held at gunpoint.
“It was a Tuesday, which is generally a quiet day,” she says. Melissa was behind her desk, head down, working at a bank on the northside of Brisbane, Australia, when she heard someone in front of her. She looked up and came face-to-face with the barrel of gun. The man holding it demanded money and threatened Melissa’s life.
“The first thing that went through my mind . . . was ‘Will I see my kids again?’”
Melissa walked away unharmed, and took some time off from her job to collect herself. When she returned on her first day four weeks later, she found herself the victim of yet another armed robbery. This time, the offender was armed with a knife.
Melissa fell apart.
She quit her job and spent years in deep depression, afraid she would find herself in a similar situation, but would not survive a third time.
For two years she laid on her couch with her windows and doors locked, never leaving her home, except to drive her children to and from school.
It wasn’t until Melissa began sharing her story that she was able to put her life back together.
“You changed my whole view of the world forever,” wrote Melissa in a letter to her offender. “I lost years of my life. I prayed for the world to stop. The world kept spinning and while others lives thrived, mine stood still.”
Her letter is part of a healing and rehabilitative exercise through the Sycamore Tree Project, an eight-week restorative justice program of Prison Fellowship Australia-Queensland. Melissa first shared her story with prisoners—some who had committed the very same crime in which she was a victim.
“That was the first time anyone had ever listened to my story . . . and validated it.”
It was a breakthrough moment for Melissa.
“There’s actually a healing that comes from the sharing,” says Executive Director David Way, “because there’s a change within the prisoner.” Part of the Sycamore Tree Projectexperience is seeing the effect the victim’s words have on offenders. When offenders go through the program, they have the opportunity to step into their victim’s shoes and understand the personal impact on those they’ve hurt.
Melissa witnessed this moment.
“They all said they never understood, or couldn’t comprehend that a victim of a robbery would be impacted . . . they were quite shocked to hear that changed my life.”
Melissa says this was difficult for her to hear, but she is humbled by their commitment to the program, and for their humility, respect, and remorse.
“They are good people, they just made some bad choices.”
Melissa tells her story again and again through the course, and now works in restorative justice for youth to help give young victims like her a voice. She, and other Sycamore Tree Project participants, told their stories to ABC News in Queensland, which aired on August 28, 2015. “Each time I do it, I feel better—it’s a healing process.”
The program currently only runs in Southern Queensland’s Gatton Correctional Centre, but Prison Fellowship Australia-Queensland recently said they are in talks with the Queensland government to roll the program out to prisons across the state. Melissa says it is her dream and hope that one day all victims of crime will be granted the opportunity to sit across from the person who hurt them. “The power of this experience is far tougher on crime than any sentence ever passed down.”
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Photo credit: Nick Paton