ELKHART, Ind. (AP) - When Jaime Borkholder arrived at the Starfish Project jewelry party, she wasn’t sure she would buy anything.
She was friends with people who had worn the jewelry and had seen a catalog, but she didn’t know much more.
About 20 other women joined her at the party - similar to those of Pampered Chef and Tupperware - at the home of Rebecca Rohrer in Elkhart. As they waited for everyone to arrive, they chatted about their day and flipped through catalogs, admiring silver cuff bracelets, a red coral necklace and the company’s popular moonstone earrings.
The majority of the women had never attended a Starfish party. So they quieted down when Sarah Schlegel, the Starfish representative and Rohrer’s daughter, began to talk.
Unlike typical home parties, there was no demonstration of the product. Instead, Schlegel played a four-minute video about the mission of the jewelry company based in Asia.
In it, several young women shared their stories, their faces hidden except for their eyes.
“When I arrived, I thought it was a legitimate hair salon,” one girl said. “But it wasn’t.”
The women in Rohrer’s living room were silent, eyes glued to the screen. Schlegel read the English subtitles for those who couldn’t see them.
“When I saw the men, my whole body started shaking,” another girl said in the video. “I was petrified and my heart was racing.”
But that was only how the stories began.
The girls went on to speak of hope - of how Starfish Project rescued them from sex trafficking and provided them with safe shelter, jobs and business training. They talked about how they now have a future.
“My dream is to learn and grow here,” a girl said. “And then go help other girls.”
Several of the women watching the video wiped their eyes.
Borkholder, who had been leaning forward during the video, sat back and listened as other women discussed their various experiences with the project, which has roots in northern Indiana, and its jewelry.
At night, the neon lights alert people to the massage parlors in the red light district of the big Asian city.
Jenny McGee, an Elkhart native, walked past the shops sometimes, but she was unaware of the plight of the women inside.
That changed the day a friend asked for her help.
It was 2006, and McGee and her husband, Doug, both graduates of Bethel College in Mishawaka, had been living in Asia for about four years. Since they spoke the language and understood the culture, her friend wondered if McGee could find her a translator so she could reach out to workers in the brothels.
McGee volunteered to translate, but she wasn’t prepared for the stories the women shared.
“None of them wanted to be there,” McGee said. “And, I say women, but some of them are girls. Some are 16 or 17 years old.”
She learned that many of the women had traveled 30 to 40 hours by train from poor country villages to the big city for jobs to help support their families. They didn’t know anyone in the city and had very little education.
Some thought they were taking jobs as waitresses, but then were told they were supposed to sell themselves.
“They called their families sometimes,” McGee said. “And sometimes their parents would be like, ‘Well, you know you need to make money…’ “
McGee visited the women in their workplaces, getting to know them and building friendships. A lot of girls were interested in English, so she held a Tuesday language class, with their bosses’ permission. She began to build relationships, and the girls reached out to her when they had health issues or became pregnant.
Every week, McGee would walk around and collect the women for class because they didn’t know what day it was.
“The girls live in the shops, which are dark and have no windows,” she said. “It’s not like they work five days and have two days off. They’d have about an hour a day that was a little more free.”
But the emotional toll was hard, to the point that McGee considered quitting the outreach effort. And some bosses began to charge the girls a fine if they left the shops.
“I just couldn’t go there and share with them and send them back to the brothel,” she recalled. “I realized if we want to help these people, we need to give them jobs.”
McGee’s only experience in business was working in a factory four summers to pay for college. But she decided to start a jewelry company.
Why jewelry? Because the women liked jewelry, raw materials are easy to come by in Asia and the products are lightweight and easy to ship to the United States. The business could also be used to teach the women skills that would equip them for future careers, such as graphic design, production, accounting and photography.
And jewelry required no special training.
The company took its name from a story adapted from “The Star Thrower,” an essay by Loren Eiseley. In it, a young man rescues a starfish from a beach, illustrating that every individual can make a difference, even if it is for just one person.
Five women moved into the Starfish shelter and started making jewelry at the kitchen table, including a signature glass starfish pendant necklace.
The jewelry then was shipped to Elkhart and sold out of a friend’s basement.
Starfish Project, which is fair-trade certified, has come a long way as a business since those early days.
In 2007, it was incorporated. It has nearly 9,000 Facebook followers, and about 150 boutiques carry its jewelry. Starfish jewelry has been featured in Asian editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire.
And its sales have grown to about $500,000 a year, according to Virginia Scharf, the company’s chief strategy officer. It exports products once a month to its Indiana office, which ships them to buyers worldwide.
For Starfish, the driving principle is to provide more jobs.
“We don’t have to be profitable,” McGee said. “We need to keep a lot of people working.”
Currently, Starfish Project operates shelters in two Asian cities. The company does not publicize the locations to protect the rescued women. It plans to expand the shelters to accommodate more women.
As soon as a woman makes the decision to leave prostitution - by running away or paying off her boss - she joins Starfish’s production staff. The starting salary is about $525 a month - enough that an employee can still send money home to family. Some women can work their way up to earning as much as $1,000.
Starfish also offers the women retirement benefits, medical insurance, business training, parenting classes and educational grants for their children.This month, five women have completed Microsoft certifications.
The women remain with Starfish an average of three or four years, but the organization tries to help them move into their own apartments within two years. Even once they have their own housing though, the women can continue to work for Starfish. The goal is help them find long-term jobs so they can avoid returning to the brothels.
Over the past 10 years, Starfish Project has employed 100 women - it can house 40 at a time - and has reached thousands more through its weekly outreach programs in the red light districts.
The women, McGee explains, have been “tricked and abused” by people who should have cared for them. So the key is to build trust.
Everyone works together - staff and production crew - in a work space that includes an office, production area and classrooms. As the women move into higher-level jobs, such as accounting or graphic design, they attend the staff meetings.
And once the women are ready, Starfish provides counseling to help them rise above the trauma they have experienced.
Through it all, Starfish Project strives to create possibilities for the women - a hope for more than just a stable life. Perhaps to dream.
“In the beginning, I had this very American idea that everyone has this amazing dream inside of them, and if given the opportunity they could achieve that great dream,” McGee said in March of 2015 to a breakout session of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. “But as I got to know the women and started asking about their dreams, I realized that poverty has a way of stripping people of their ability to dream.”
One former Starfish girl - one of the first five to enter the shelter - now sells cosmetics. Another set up her own jewelry supply business and now supplies Starfish Project with its raw materials.
One woman whom Starfish sent to learn Photoshop and graphic design taught the skills to other staffers. Recently, she took a design job in her hometown. But before she left, she helped design the company’s current catalog and edit its photos.
McGee and the staff maintain relationships with the women who leave Starfish - whether it’s for another job, to get married, to have a baby or to return to their hometown. Only a couple of girls have returned to their former lives in the brothels.
“A lot of them will come back and say, ‘We didn’t even realize what you did for us at that time,’ ” McGee said. ” ‘ My life is totally different than it ever would have been.’ “
Scharf and McGee credit word of mouth and Starfish Project’s expanding direct sales program for its growth.
The company has about 100 U.S. “Advocates of Hope” - women who host jewelry parties and share the Starfish story for a 25 percent commission. It hopes to expand its advocate program into Canada and abroad within the year.
“There is something powerful about having women from different walks of life supporting other women,” McGee said.
Sarah Schlegel first heard about Starfish Project at a women’s conference six years ago. She quickly became an advocate.
People are often surprised at the quality of the jewelry, she said, and at how reasonable the prices are, with the majority of the pieces ranging from $20 to $40. Starfish doesn’t require advocates to sign up people under them to sell jewelry.
The jewelry sells itself, Schlegel said, and many people will at least buy a pair of earrings. “It makes them feel a part of something bigger,” she said.
Schlegel likes to think about what the money can provide the women. For instance, $30 - one or two pieces of jewelry - can provide housing in the shelter for 10 women for a day. Schlegel shared a breakdown of some of Starfish’s expenses at her mother’s home party in Elkhart.
That caught the attention of Borkholder. “You try to ignore it,” she said of sex trafficking, “but you know it happens.”
She came to the party unsure what to expect. She ended up buying several pieces, including a mother-of-pearl necklace.
But it was about more than just adding to a jewelry collection.
“This really feels like you are making a difference for someone,” she said.
Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/2a4PF0J
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