Max (centre) with Sales Advisor Jan Corbett (left) and Annah Stretton (right).
Residents at Bob Owens Retirement Village were moved to hear the gut-wrenching story of Maxine, a former meth addict who has more than 300 convictions and has been to jail seven times, and how she managed to turn her life around.
The 40-year-old was introduced by fashion designer and social entrepreneur Annah Stretton, the creative mind behind Ryman's colourful uniforms, as an example of how her RAW Foundation is helping recidivist female offenders to change their lives through mentoring plus housing, education and work opportunities.
Max said her upbringing in Hamilton with her mum and three sisters had been happy and stable, with no alcohol, drugs or violence. But when she was 15 she learned that her older sister had been killed in a car crash.
"I didn't cope very well," said Max, who admitted she was nervous to speak in front of such a large audience. "I started running away, drinking and causing trouble and I kept getting arrested.
"The police got sick of me and sent me to live with my alcoholic father in Auckland even though I didn't really know him."
Max found herself suddenly immersed in a life where all-day drinking, taking drugs, gang members and fighting were the norm and she soon adopted the same behaviour.
"I was this young, naïve and innocent girl and I'd been thrown into a world of chaos and violence," she said.
A month after she arrived, her dad's friend, taking advantage of the fact she was passed out drunk, brutally raped and beat her.
"That was the beginning of the end for me," she said. "I turned into the most angry, violent person, I hated everyone. I started taking drugs and took as much as I could so I didn't have to think about it."
On returning back to Hamilton, Max was out one night and blanked out. The next thing she remembers was waking up at the police station, her hair matted with someone else's blood. She was charged with attempted murder, kidnapping and robbery.
"I only have flashbacks of being raped and a lovely old man tried to help me and I tried to kill him," she admitted, to gasps from the listeners.
Twenty years of severe meth addiction followed, where Max would sometimes go 11 days without sleep. Drugs and committing crimes, such as credit card fraud, were her only motivators.
Annah said Max's story is just one of many similar stories amongst the 900 women currently serving time in New Zealand's prisons.
She explained how a meeting to find out about women's refuge work and in particular an encounter with a young woman called Crystal, who described her life as worse than that depicted in the film Once Were Warriors, is what set Annah off on her purpose for RAW, which stands for Reclaim Another Woman.
She was particularly struck by how Crystal's idea of normal could be such a vastly different one from that of her own daughter, who was the same age.
Using her well-known name to get in the door at the Department of Corrections Annah was granted access to prisons where she could pitch to recidivist female offenders to volunteer to come and stay at their sanctuary in Hamilton and attempt change with all the support the Foundation has put in place.
"Targeting the mums made sense," she said. "The kids go home to all of the mums and become the environment that surrounds them so if we provide a new environment and become the significant others to these women, they will become the change and break the cycle for their children."
She said meth use and its production was a 'powerful driver' in the jump in numbers of women in prison but drugs themselves were not to blame for being the gateway to crime.
"It's trauma, childhood abuse, neglect, those are the gateways," she said.
Annah said the success of RAW, whose patron is the Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy, could be measured by the de-amplification of criminal behaviour and the number of women entering the workplace and leadership roles in large companies, or completing degrees and diplomas and speaking alongside Annah.
A meeting for some of the women with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on their recent visit was a huge high point for the Foundation.
To date, RAW has helped 35 women to turn their lives around, including Max, who said she had been clean for five years, she had reconnected with her sisters and children and hoped to connect with her mum too, and had a leadership role within Waikato company Gallaghers.
"I'm not looking for pity, I come to talk to people like yourselves to raise awareness about women in prison and what they're facing," she said.
Annah has published a book – The Raw Truth - which tells the story of 20 of the women who have been helped and the five year history of RAW, which Annah set up with the help of her sister Rebecca Skilton.
The afternoon ended on a lighter note with 12 residents and Sales Advisor Jan Corbett strutting the catwalk in some of Annah's beautiful dresses.