Jan

17

POSSIBILITIES PROJECT // DAY 10 // Beginnings

Today was a culmination of a lot of experiences for me. This day seemed to mark the beginning of something. I met our first five potential women that could be sewing our baby blankets. We prepared an initial intake interview to get a sense of their current situation and I had a simple sewing sample for them to complete to assess their skill levels.

I greeted each and every individual women by shaking their hands and learned their names…Rani, Rachel, Latika, Beena, and Philomina. Most of these women were my age or younger, but looked 10 times their years. They have never been employed in their lives and their husbands are either day laborers or do menial side jobs. Many of them survive on 500 rupees a week = $10. One of them is HIV+. They struggle with making ends meet and very few of them have savings. But despite their condition I was met with beams of joy.

I came in with low expectations of their skills and was surprised by what they already knew. Freeset faces issues of literacy and even fine motor skills. These women could count, measure and follow instructions that I gave them even with my own limited communication, they understood what they needed to do. After completing their sewing task, I asked them to do their own self-evaluation and compare their sewing sample with mine. Part of my own teaching of empowerment is not to just tell somewhat what to do, but to help them see for themselves what needs to happen. This becomes much more internally realized and acts as a better motivator than someone telling them what to do. Most of the women were able to point out their own areas of improvement and I also had the other women give them critique of their work. One woman even helped Nate fix his torn eyeglass case.
In the end, I desire to foster an environment of community, not just a place of work. I desire a place where these women can come and be sisters and encourage each other to be champions of excellence in their work. I also desire for them to know that they are all truly valued and precious and not just a “worker”. I pray that as we continue this project that people will see the cause behind our product. Yes, it’s a beautiful blanket, but it has a much deeper story to tell, it’s a story of hope and promise.
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Nov

22

POSSIBILITIES PROJECT // DAY 6 // PAVING THE WAY

Today we got a chance to catch up and rest. We filmed another video – but this time on the streets of Kolkata. I didn’t quite anticipate how much attention I’d attract! Storeowners, pedestrians, street people all stopped to see if we were doing a local news report. It was a bit daunting to get that much attention since we already get a fair amount of stares for being foreigners. Overall everyone was friendly and just wanted to talk to us or be on camera.

In the afternoon, we went back to Freeset to spend time with a couple of their operations managers. We’re SO blessed by Freeset; they’ve welcomed us with open arms, treated us like their children and shared all their past mistakes and triumphs. It really can’t be overstated how helpful and loving they’ve been.

We met with Sandro who is a native Brazillian and moved to Kolkata just to work with Freeset as their operations manager. He oversees the whole production of the bags from start to finish. He sat down with us, gave his best advice and let us pick every part of his brain. He shared openly about the joys of working at Freeset and the struggles of living in India.

Sandro also told us that a big challenge is the differing standards of quality. What we think is acceptable quality is different than what the women think is acceptable quality. Some of this is cultural. But in the end, it’s still a significant gulf to cross.

Many of the Freeset women have no education and need to learn fine motor skills in order to achieve the tasks that they are given. Even handling a pair of scissors can be a challenge. Kerry and Annie not only provide a job, but they educate their women and love them like their own. Just recently they had to house a young girl who was beaten by her brother and had no where else to go.

To see where they are today is an enormous encouragement. After 10 years of blood, sweat and tears, they’ve been able to create a sustainable business and produce quality products that are sold all over the world. It’s a story of faith and endurance. Their willingness to sacrifice western comforts and intentionally live among the poor has been an inspiration to us.

As we were leaving, Annie (one of the founders), sneakily slipped a card into my purse and said, “This is for you guys.” Later when I opened it up, it contained a very generous gift and the card read, “Please accept this to help as you start-up your business. May His Freedom Reign, Blessings Kerry & Annie.” I am so humbled by their generosity and it’s something that I will carry with me always. Thank you Freeset for paving the path for us.

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Nov

16

Possibilities Project: Day 3 & 4 Sari Bari and Freeset Visits

To say we love the poor doesn’t mean much until we do something about it. And Beth did something about it. Right out of college, Beth from Sari Bari, decided to move into the heart of the red-light district in Kolkata and has given up her twenties to defend the powerless.

She picked us up from the metro station and walked us through weaving alleys, shouting storeowners and bathing children. We noticed that the closer we got to our destination, the brighter the houses got. It was more alluring, yet more dilapidated than other neighborhoods.

There are no signs to Sari Bari. This is for the safety of the women. We proceeded up a dark narrow stairway to arrive on a brightly sun-lit terrance. At the center of a very worn down building, there was the gentle hum of women sewing. These beautiful sarees were being hand sewn, stitch-by-stitch into blankets, bags or scarves.

Beth speaks a few words in English to her operations manager and then gives a loving embrace to one of her girls. She’s both a mother and a manager. A coach and a counselor. Beth supervises, mentors and cares for over 50 former sex-trade workers, helping them find a way out of the trade.

We’ve spent two days with two organizations, Sari Bari and Freeset, hearing about their work providing freedom for women in the sex-trade. Many of these women are kidnapped, lied to or blatantly sold by their husbands or parents into slavery. There are several red-light districts in Kolkata where up to 20,000 men seek out the services of over 10,000 women daily (many of whom are barely teenagers).

What Sari Bari and Freeset do is provide gainful employment as an alternative to the sex-trade. Sari Bari makes bags and blankets out of recycled sarees. Freeset makes jute bags and organic, fair-trade cotton t-shirts (we’re offering their burlap bag as one of our Indiegogo perks!). Both organizations provide health coverage and basic education in reading, writing and math.

It’s been tough learning about how girls (not women) are being exploited. Kerry, the founder of Freeset shared about how they often get destitute women walking in with all the life sucked out of them. However when we observed the women, there were so many contagious and genuine smiles. They worked hard, laughed intermittently and you couldn’t help but feel like you were among family. You knew lives had been changed.

Annie, Kerry’s wife, spoke about a woman who was mute and had been working in the sex-trade for many years. Because of her physical disability and her age, she was barely making 25 cents USD per “transaction.” She came in broken and her saree was filthy. Annie gave her a clean saree, a few full-days wages and brought her into the Freeset family. After three years, she still can’t speak, but she can smile and she’s one of the hardest workers in the group.

This post could go on forever with stories and impressions. But what we saw were people courageously standing up for the poor, restoring broken lives and loving people that others have thrown away. They were willing to move their entire families to the worst neighborhood in Kolkata because of a simple call to follow Jesus and love the poor.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any photos within either Sari Bari or Freeset because many of the women are still at risk from former owners, pimps and lenders. We’ll share more in the next few posts, but both these organizations were amazing inspirations and ridiculously generous with their time and resources. It’s been both supremely humbling and encouraging to be with them and a huge blessing to connect with leaders who have been doing it for more than 10 years.

Thanks for journeying with us… more to come!

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