Of all the moving stories recounted in the poems read at HCC Tuesday by the women from Voices from Inside, the moment that brought Olga Pedraza to tears was at the very end of the program, when the audience spontaneously sang Happy Birthday to her, led by English professor Petriana Monize.
"I don't think anyone has ever sung me Happy Birthday before," said Pedraza, who turned 47.
Pedraza is an HCC student majoring in Human Services at HCC, but she is also a facilitator and was one of the participants from Voices from Inside, an organization that runs writing workshops for women who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.
Like the other three participants, Pedraza wore a black T-shirt with a quote on it from a VFI woman named Nilsa:
My greatest secret I keep on a piece of paper.
Tuesday, before students and faculty from a wide variety of HCC classes -- English, Sociology, Women's Studies, Anthropology and Criminal Justice -- the four women read poems authored by themselves and others who are still locked up, poems about drug abuse, addiction, incarceration and all the other forces and events that have shaped their lives.
"Through our writing we have learned to express our insight and personal growth," said Pedraza. "Some of our writing we share as previously incarcerated women are personal and have a lot of meaning and sharing it with you today is a further step in this process of self-discovery and transformation."
They began by reading a poem together called "We have a circle."
We built a circle of trust and hope
This is how we ladies learn to cope ...
For we all have a voice we just want to be heard
It's based on truth, a fiction or fact
Maybe the reason we keep coming back
Listen, don't judge, that's what we're about
We have a voice, we'll scream and we'll shout
Our voices share beauty, laughter and pain
Our voices bear no shame ...
Tuesday's Voices from Inside program was coordinated by HCC English professor Lisa Mahon, who spent last spring on sabbatical co-facilitating a Voices from Inside writing workshop at the Women's Correctional Center in Chicopee. She also helped design a workshop at the jail called "The Power of Stories" that engages women by reading literature. Mahon will draw on that experience in a Learning Community course she is co-teaching in the spring called "Unbound: Freedom in Women's Lives, which will read extensively from VFI anthologies and include a Service Learning Project with Voices from Inside.
"One of the reasons I really wanted to work with Voices from Inside is, through the years, I would have students in my English classes who had been incarcerated and worked with Voices from Inside," Mahon said during her introduction Tuesday. "Doing these writing workshops and being in jail working with the other women on their writing they would say was the biggest factor for them in deciding to pursue an education, so I knew I wanted to be part of this wonderful organization any way that I could."
Pedraza read a piece she wrote called "They Simply Saw" that recounts her life from homeless teenager to college student:
They simply saw a woman breaking the law, so they arrested her
What they didn't see was that she prayed for angels and they came disguised as cops, and she was grateful
They simply saw a female inmate number 109213
What they didn't see was that, although she was afraid and behind bars, it was the first time she felt free, free from the bondage of her addiction
She had three meals a day, a shower, a bed to sleep in, people who cared, hope for a new day and a second chance ...
They simply saw a Hispanic, 46-year-old woman, scared and confused, who appeared to be in the wrong class
What they didn't see was a new student, eager to learn, to make a difference and fight, not only for herself but for the women that struggle with trauma in her community ...
This semester, Pedraza is taking three classes: Human Services, math and English 102. She came to HCC through a Transition to College and Careers class the college offers through a program called After Incarceration Support Services (AISS) in Springfield.
She has been involved with Voices from Inside for 10 years and hopes to graduate from HCC in 2017.
"If it wasn't for these women," she said, "believing in me before I believed in myself, I wouldn't be here as a student or a reader."
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) Sonia Mendez and HCC student Olga Pedraza discuss their writings at a Voices from Inside event at HCC. (Right) Lisa Peck speaks about the writing process as Christina Ruest looks on. (Thumbnail) Christina Ruest and HCC student Olga Pedraza speak after the Voices from Inside event at HCC.