Hour Children inspired ‘Las Catrinas’ production

The recently-held production “Las Catrinas” was inspired by women from the Queens-based organization Hour Children, which helps women who have been involved in the criminal justice system.

Show director Carli Gaughf, a resident of Astoria, said she had a friend who volunteered with Hour Children and that she was looking for a community to do a play with. She spoke with individuals at Hour Children and they were very supportive of the idea.

Hour Children “is a family service organization that provides a wide array of supportive services that transform the lives of women and their families involved in the criminal justice system,” according to publicity information from the show.

Gaughf said that she finds people who come from such a very different background as her own to be fascinating.

“I feel so thankful to have come from a really peaceful, supportive family,” she said. “It just interested me that so many of them have survived such hard lives.”

Kristen Froberg, a playwright who recently graduated from Columbia, responded to Gaughf’s search for someone to work with on the project. The two interviewed women from the organization and then did several drafts of “Las Catrinas.”

“It’s just so amazing to see the success stories that have come out of the organizations,” Froberg said.

One of those success stories is that of Kellie Phelam, who is now a program coordinator with Hour Children. Phelam did drugs, eventually using heroin, and spent time in and out of jail. After getting pregnant by a drug dealer, she turned herself in on a warrant and was incarcerated on Rikers Island. While there, she met a woman from Hour Children who told her about the organization.

Phelam, who had an older daughter before being imprisoned, gave birth to her younger daughter while in Rikers.

“I was so embarrassed for this little beautiful baby that she had to have a mother like me,” she said.

Having been with Hour Children for about two years now, Phelam said things have gotten better for her. She has received her GED, now has her own apartment and moved up from being an assistant program coordinator to program coordinator.

“It’s just been nothing but positive, positive things,” Phelam said.

Maria Benson, currently a resident of Hour Children, was also pregnant when she was incarcerated in Bedford Hills and gave birth while there. Since she would not be able to go home with her daughter initially and she had no one to take care of her, she contacted Hour Children in 2006 to arrange for them to take care of her daughter.

However, due to a work release program, she was able to come home with her daughter, eventually moving into a residence and having two more of her children join her.

“The biggest help they gave to me was some place safe for my daughter and me to come home to,” said Benson, who is now in college for accounting. “From there they offered me support, they offered me a push when I needed it, they offered me a shoulder to cry on, and they offered me my own apartment…”

Both Phelam and Benson were involved with the recent production. Part of the proceeds from the show, which was held from June 18 to June 21, will benefit Hour Children. Gaughf said that she hopes the show taught more people about Hour Children and the work that they do.

“I think this play will really open the eyes of some people of what’s really going on with some of these homes and what these kids are going through,” Benson said. “I hope it gives a message of hope, too, that you can change and people do change.”

Phelam said that she wants people who saw “Las Catrinas” to take away that some people make mistakes.

“The choices we’ve made [don’t] mean we love our children any less,” she said. “We’re here and we’re doing this to give back to what Hour Children has given us. It’s changed our lives.”

For more information on Hour Children, visit www.HourChildren.org.