Five women holding up items th cover their faces

At Darling, we are passionate about cultural, environmental and social issues impacting women and girls. “Nonprofit Spotlight” shines a light on nonprofits that are doing impactful work on the ground level. Each month, we will spotlight a charitable organization in order to educate and encourage advocacy and action.

As news of COVID-19 spread and the world went into lockdown, vulnerable people became more vulnerable. This is especially true for the women and girls affected by human trafficking. For the team at Starfish Project, who work with women and girls trapped in brothels every day, they witnessed the pandemic that isolated the world leave trafficking victims in even more dire situations.

Founded in 2006, Starfish Project helps exploited women experience freedom, establish independence and develop careers. Starfish Project is unlike other cause-related brands of its kind because 100 percent of its sales are invested back into its mission—restoring hope to trafficked women.

“All of the revenue from jewelry sales goes back into the program,” said Starfish Project Founder and CEO Jenny McGee. “Our entire company is about giving opportunities to trafficked women and allowing them to have jobs with dignity.”

Darling got to chat with Jenny, about the work she and her team at Starfish Project are doing to give opportunities to trafficked women and how COVID-19 has impacted the business and the women they support.

There’s a saying about that a passion is something you love or something that breaks your heart enough that you are compelled to change it. What was the passion that led you to start the Starfish Project?

Starfish started as a way to give girls opportunities. We are a place where women can feel valued and for women to take hold of opportunities. 

“Starfish started as a way to give girls opportunities. We are a place where women can feel valued and for women to take hold of opportunities.” 

I saw that a lot of the women were abused and abandoned long before they were in a brothel. A lot of the women can’t read or write. A lot of the women have never gone to school a day in their lives. A lot of girls work to make money so that their brothers can go to school. 

Even the fact that they are born a girl is a huge weight for their families. A lot of women will tell us that their families don’t feel that it is necessary to invest in them or their education. 

A lot of girls in our program are “left behind kids.” Their parents go into the city to find work, and girls will get left behind at 12 or 13 years old. In the American system, they would be put into foster care, but here, those girls end up alone and in a brothel. They work in brothels just trying to provide for themselves and their families.

How does Starfish Project uniquely speak to the issue of human trafficking and sexual exploitation?

We really help women develop high level careers. We work not to just provide entry level work for women. We work to provide opportunities for survivor leaders to work at all levels of the company. Any job we have at Starfish, we try to have women from the program come in and fill that role. Part of the responsibility of the company is to mentor women into every space in the company. 

A lot of human trafficking groups report that of the people they are helping get out of brothels, 70 percent go back. At Starfish, we have only had 5 percent of women go back. I think part of the difference with Starfish is that the women coming into our program can see women like themselves who are in accounting and photography. There is this hope of what they can become.

Immediately, when they come to Starfish, they can see a bigger future for themselves. We use Starfish Project to provide those career opportunities for women and provide a long-term solution to women after leaving a human trafficking situation. 

Immediately, when they come to Starfish, they can see a bigger future for themselves.

A woman standing next to spools of yarn on a counterYour team visits brothels to invite women and girls into the Starfish Project. Can you tell me what this experience was like when you first started going in 2006?

I just started visiting the brothels with a few friends. We saw a lot of women on the streets who looked vulnerable. It was through building relationships and chatting with them that I saw their needs and their challenges. 

So we started looking at how we can meet those needs. A lot of them were interested in studying, particularly English. I actually started a little English class in an area where there were 10 or 12 brothels. 

A lot of the women work every single day. So every day is the same. They are working the entire day in these buildings without windows. So it’s hard to tell if it was morning or evening. I went around from brothel to brothel each day telling the women that I am starting class now. The class was very transient. I just started teaching them where they were at and teaching them English. 

I would bring them food after, and girls started sharing their personal problems with me and about their lives. Through those relationships I built, I saw this need. I started Starfish Project to help meet those needs. I could see they were there for economic reasons, and they didn’t know their value. 

Through those relationships I built, I saw this need. I started Starfish Project to help meet those needs.

What are common misconceptions about victims of human trafficking?

Most of the women who we work with don’t realize that they have been trafficked. From watching movies, we have this idea that it is often this kidnapping scenario. Most of the time, it’s people who they already trust in their lives and manipulate some vulnerability in their lives to take advantage of them. 

It’s very savvy, and many people don’t realize it’s happened to them. They often don’t realize until years later how they were manipulated or tricked. It’s a process before they realize they were trafficked and then accepting the reality of that. 

Starfish Project has trained and employed more than 150 women since its inception. What are some of the joys of watching women gain independence?

For me, my favorite part of my job is working side-by-side with women and seeing radical transformation in their lives. We have women who come to us with very little confidence, and seeing them a year or two laterafter becoming a leader in their communities or whatever role or job they are inwatching that transformation from shame and having no confidence to seeing them thrive is truly the best part.

For me, my favorite part of my job is working side-by-side with women and seeing radical transformation in their lives.

It’s seeing them have jobs with real purpose and something that they are really passionate about. I think it’s really exciting to see that passion in each woman. 

How has COVID-19 impacted how the Starfish Project operates? How has it affected the women and girls who you serve?

COVID-19 made vulnerable people even more vulnerable. We found a lot of women who were still working in the brothels. When this area went under lockdown, women had nowhere to go. Most of the women who work in the brothel, live in the brothel. The women locked themselves in their rooms with bike chains because they had no safe place to go. A lot of the owners were turning off electricity to save money. They were in these tiny spaces without windows. 

COVID-19 made vulnerable people even more vulnerable.

After lockdown ended, when we talked to women, they had such a sense of deep loneliness. I could see the vulnerabilities, and they became more vulnerable.

As a business, we have had to be creative and pivot. It’s been encouraging to see our team rally. We are in Southeast Asia so the pandemic hit us earlier. By the time March came and it hit our customers, they were pulling orders. So we got creative. 

We ended up using the skills of our teams to export 57,000 masks to frontline workers in America. They rallied together and worked hard to do that. It helped our organization and helped front line workers in America when there was a shortage. 

2020 is a season of adapting and pivoting, and I have watched my team adapt and rally together. I had to quarantine in my home for two weeks as well. The women in our program would just drop food off at my door. It was really humbling. It was so great to see our team really care for each other and meet each others’ needs. 

A necklace set in a jewelry boxTell me about the Starfish Project’s Holistic Care Program and why it is important.

We have three main priorities at Starfish:

1. Experience Freedom
Our outreach team visits brothels and builds relationships with women.

2. Establish Independence
We provide safe homes for them. They move into our safe homes, and they receive health care. We try to help them bring their children to the city and support their child’s education or provide for daycare. We also do an individualized growth program for women to identify strengths and weaknesses. We provide literacy courses in math, reading and computers all while the women are working in a career.

3. Develop Careers
We provide high level training for careers that they are passionate about. For example, some of the women have become sourcing developers, photographers and accountants. 

Is there anything exciting coming up with the organization that Darling readers should know about?

We have two big things. We have our Create Safe Homes campaign. We saw a need through COVID-19the need for safe housing. This program will expand our current shelters and prepare women joining us to create safe homes of their own.

Each woman escaping the brothels and entering our safe home will be paired with a coach who will help them gain the tools they need to build a sustainable life of freedom. We are taking the shelters we already had and turning them into full-on training centers to coach women in a safe home and provide support after they move into their safe homes. The campaign ends Dec. 31, and our goal is to raise $90,000 to cover rent, utilities, day care staff, safe home staff, health care, food and supplies.

The second thing that we realized after COVID-19, is that it’s hard for people to get out and shop and send packages to loved ones. We are coming out with high quality gifts in these really cute gift bags just in time for the holidays. We curated really nice gift sets. We are launching them on Dec. 2.

What are some practical ways Darling readers can support Starfish Project?

The biggest thing is just purchasing the jewelry. The jewelry creates jobs for the women. More than generating finances, it allows women to have jobs with dignity. It’s the best way to support us. The Gifts of Hope collection is a perfect and beautifully curated jewelry line perfect for the holidays!

The jewelry creates jobs for the women. More than generating finances, it allows women to have jobs with dignity.

Three gold necklaces danglingWhat is your favorite part of the work you do with Starfish Project?

By far, my favorite part is working side-by-side with the women in the program. There is a lot of back-and-forth with factories to get what the customers want. One of our staff is a woman who has gone through our program, and she is the main point of contact to handle those orders. To watch the transformation in her life and the confidence she has developed with us is so encouraging to me. Seeing the women develop those gifts and seeing them transform and develop families and all the life stages they go through is so encouraging to me. 

If you had three words to describe the work you do at Starfish Project, what would they be?

Growing
Impactful
Hopeful 

What are your thoughts on Starfish Projects’ unique holistic approach to empowering women? In what ways can you support vulnerable communities that have been made more vulnerable due to COVID-19?

Image via Mae Lee and June of Starfish Project

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