- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

ELKHART, Ind. (AP) - Jenny McGee and the women she works with in east Asia are far away from where they grew up. But unlike McGee, they can’t find their way home.

Elkhart-native McGee is the founder and director of the Starfish Project, which started in 2006. It’s an online jewelry business based out of both Goshen and east Asia that provides shelter and alternative job opportunities for women who are homeless or forced into the sex trade in east Asian cities and surrounding regions.

These women come from poverty, McGee said. They grew up in the countryside where there’s often no running water. So to make a living for themselves and their families, parents and husbands send them away on 30- to 40-hour-long train rides into the city.

Once they’re there, these women aren’t able to find their way home - whether through lack of education, lack of money or lack of connections.

So McGee sought to build them a new one.

The Starfish Project has three shelters throughout the region where exploited women have access to counseling, vocational training and health care. A lot of the women who enter the shelter are suicidal or suffer from depression, McGee said. Their first few years there are about rebuilding their self-worth and giving them a sense of routine.

They earn their keep by assembling jewelry to be sold online. And while they have made strides through counseling, McGee said it’s the job that allows them to grow.

“What’s been amazing to me is I’ve seen how even having a job where they are producing things that people want to buy and they’re making something beautiful; they’re being responsible and contributing; they’re able to make their own money in a good and healthy way that they can use to pay for their children; I think gives them so much dignity and pride,” McGee said.

There is also vocational training in which the women can learn skills that allow them to seek other job opportunities. Thirty-five of their employees are previously exploited women who have even chosen to stay with the Starfish Project, taking on administrative and creative positions. Most have moved into their own apartments, gotten married and raised their own children.

It’s often the same story for most of the exploited women McGee works with.

Most of them expect waitressing or desk jobs on the train ride into the city, something that will bring in a lot of money, McGee said. But once they reach their destinations, there’s a different line of work waiting for them.

Most of the women are between 18 and 25 years old when they enter the sex trade, McGee said. Some are as young as 16.

Some families don’t know what their daughters or wives are getting into, she said.

“But we do have stories of girls who have called their parents and said, ‘Hey, Mom and Dad, do you know this is what I’m going to do?’” McGee told The Elkhart Truth (http://bit.ly/1sJtMVL ). “And their parents say, ‘Well, other girls do it. You can do it too.’”

And it’s not just a problem in Asia. It’s a global issue, even in the United States, she said. But McGee - in her years working in the region - thinks it comes down to how women are valued in the countryside.

“They are already very abused, very neglected and they just have issues about being a girl,” she said. “They just feel like they have no value, so I think that’s really the root of the problem.”

On top of that, the women believe they owe their families for taking care of them.

While these women aren’t being held against their will, McGee said they don’t have anywhere else to go. They’re hours away from the people they know, and even if they do return home, they can’t find jobs. Most of them haven’t studied past the second and third grades.

A group of two to three people - “community service teams,” McGee calls them - visit exploited women at the massage parlors where they work. They try to build relationships with them and offer to take them to the hospital for medical services. Some of the women have sexually-transmitted diseases, and others seek abortions, sometimes six months into their pregnancies.

By McGee’s count, the teams meet up to 700 women every month.

The people in charge of the massage parlors aren’t thrilled when community service teams come around, and there are rude “bosses,” as McGee calls them, who refuse to allow them into their shops. But she said most of them are also women who have been exploited.

“We find that there’s a woman in charge of the place, often she came out of that background herself,” she said. “So, sometimes, they can be a little bit more compassionate. When it’s been a male boss, we haven’t had that much success. I think it’s all about money then.”

Even when the community service teams convince women to leave the massage parlors, some bosses tend to be more forgiving once a rapport has been built. McGee said they’ve even had a boss call them to pick up a girl because she was crying every day and was convinced she was “not going to make it in this place.”

It’s the kind of mutual understanding that takes years to build.

“We’ve had volunteers work with the bosses’ children to teach English or different ways of just building relationships,” McGee said. “I think in Asia, if you have a relationship, a lot of things are forgiven.”

Despite what they’ve been through, most of the women with the Starfish Project continue to send money to their families in the countryside. It’s what their culture expects of them as good people, even if their personal relationship might be strained, McGee said.

“A lot of the women - even though they’ve been deeply wounded by their parents and their families - if I ask them what is their dream in life, most of them will say, ‘Oh, I really want to provide a home for my family,” McGee said.

You can only see the difference in these women’s lives years down the road, McGee said. It’s slow work. But she knew the challenges when she started the Starfish Project, even when she came up with its name.

The name comes from a parable, she said. It’s about a boy who tried to save as many beached starfish as he could by throwing them back into the ocean. As he’s walking along the shore, an old man approaches and tells him there are too many stranded starfishes for him to make a difference.

“And the boy picks up a starfish and throws that one into the sea and said, ‘Well, I made a difference for that one,’” McGee said.

It’s a parable McGee and her team continue to live by every day.

___

Information from: The Elkhart Truth, http://www.elkharttruth.com

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