Sir Ray Avery speaking to prisoners at Christchurch Women's PrisonWhen prisoner Mandy* heard about scientist and inventor Sir Ray Avery, she was already inspired and keen to get hold of his book.

She was inspired by the story of someone who had a tough beginning, like many people she knew, who could completely turn his life around, make a huge difference in other people’s lives and then be recognised with a knighthood and as New Zealander of the Year.

She took her request back to Daphne who facilitates the Christchurch Women’s Prison book group and asked whether they could get hold of some copies. Never did she think she would have the opportunity to discuss it with Ray himself.

On 16 November, it happened.

Sir Ray Avery visited Christchurch Women’s Prison speaking with the book group and then to a large group of prisoners.

“Ray Avery’s story has made a big impact on all those who attended his presentation,” says Christchurch Women’s Prison Director, Wayne McKnight.

“His story is incredibly powerful and inspirational for the women, not only because of what he has achieved, but because he has achieved this with a very adverse start in life. Many of the women will have seen parallels to their own childhoods.”

Sir Ray Avery’s autobiography, Rebel with a Cause; charts his life from childhood to knighthood; his humble beginnings in English orphanages, foster homes and homelessness  to pharmaceutical scientist, inventor, social entrepreneur, humanitarian and New Zealander of the Year.

“Hope and belief in yourself are enormously powerful factors in making change in your life,” says Sir Ray. “For many of the women here, they have had challenging lives in terms of disrupted childhoods, poverty, low levels of education and parental support and family violence. I’m sure for some of the women today’s experience will have been life changing.”

Sir Ray’s message is that everyone can have a better future and to do this you need to have a plan and believe in yourself. 

“I had a challenging start to life,” he says. “I know that it just takes one person to inspire someone to fight back and make their dreams come true.

“You can’t always change the cards that you are dealt in life, but you can change the way you play them. That failure is not the end but an opportunity to learn and is on the path to success.”

This is Sir Ray’s first visit to a women’s prison. He is aware that there were times in his early life when things could have been very different for him and he could have ended up on the other side of the wire.

The change in his life came about in large part from the intervention and belief in him from one man, teacher, social worker and prison counsellor, Jack Wise.

“I’m paying back someone who helped me,” says Sir Ray. “Hopefully this will allow someone else to make a new start and create the life that they dream.”

Daphne, prison volunteer and member of the Project Esther Trust, facilitates the prison book group and approached Ray to speak with the women.

“We were thrilled that he agreed to come,” she says. “At the end of each book we have a discussion about aspects of the story, including how people felt about the book, what the author was thinking, what we can learn from this.

“These discussions and what every person gets from a book can be very different and subject to interpretation and the reader’s own life experience. To be able to ask the author and explore their thinking in more depth was a real opportunity for all of us in the group.”

In addition to the book discussion notes from the Book Distribution Scheme, who supply the books and support the book group, the women had plenty of additional questions for Ray.

Self-taught reader Mandy has developed a passion for autobiographical works and was particularly interested in the science behind Sir Ray’s inventions and how he overcame difficult situations.

“Sir Ray said New Zealanders start at the impossible. He said he would think it may be impossible to do something and then think, is it really impossible? And then he would get it done.

“It doesn’t really matter where you came from. If you dream, and want the best things, then they can happen.”

* Not her real name. ‘Mandy’s name withheld to protect her victims and support her rehabilitation.