Jenny McGee, a native of Elkhart, Indiana, had been living in Asia for 4 years with her husband when a friend asked for a favor. The friend wanted her to find a translator so she could reach out to women who worked in the local brothels.
Since Jenny was fluent in the language, she agreed to help. Little did she know how heartbreaking the women’s stories would be and how young some of them were.
As is usually the case with trafficked persons, the women thought they were coming to the “big city” to work in restaurants or hair salons so they could earn money to send to their families in far-away towns and villages. Instead, they were forced to live in small, dark shops and sell themselves day in and day out.
Drawn in by the women’s plight, Jenny continued her translation work. She built friendships with them and began to teach them English.
But she wanted to do more. So she started a jewelry business where the women could make the jewelry and earn enough money to keep them off the street and work in a dignified environment.
She set up a shelter and five women moved into it, making jewelry together at the kitchen table. In the 10 years since that simple beginning, Starfish Project has employed over 100 women at two shelters. It’s reached thousands more through its weekly outreach programs in the red light districts.
Women who live in the shelter experience a new way of life through the communal living environment. The women become family for each other, learning good and emotionally healthy communication and relationship skills, often for the first time.
The training the women receive goes beyond making jewelry. They’re taught graphic design, production, distribution, accounting, and photography, all skills that help them move towards future careers. Many have started their own businesses after two or three years with Starfish.
Most importantly, Starfish provides counseling so the women can try to move beyond their traumatic experiences. They also receive retirement benefits, medical insurance, and parenting classes.
The high cost of schooling in the large cities of Asia often forces the women to send their children to live with relatives. In an effort to keep the women together with their children, the Starfish Project also provides educational grants for the children.
Where do the funds come from for all this training and support? Directly from jewelry sales. For instance, $30 can provide housing in the shelter for 10 women for a day. That’s the average price of the beautiful jewelry we sell from Starfish at Fair Trade Designs.
“I celebrated my 21st birthday here. It was the first time someone made me a birthday cake and sang to me. I am able to laugh and cry again. Not tears of sadness, but of joy.”