By Julie Crothers
Goshen News, Ind.
Elkhart native Jenny McGee has told the story of Starfish Project thousands of times.
She’s shared stories of women who came to large cities in Asia from the countryside, sometimes traveling 20 to 40 hours by train to find jobs to support their families.
She’s discussed the economic challenges the women face and the insufferable situations they encounter.
And she’s talked about the work she and her co-workers have done to help those women transform their futures.
But it isn’t often that she shares the story with a group of people dedicated to helping women across the globe from offices located at the United Nations.
On Tuesday, McGee joined five other panelists at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City to discuss ending human trafficking and the exploitation of women as part of the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women.
The session, which will review progress made in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 20 years after its adoption at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, began Monday and will continue through March 20 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
The declaration aimed to advance women’s rights and tackle issues such as women and poverty, violence against women and access to power and decision-making.
McGee said Tuesday’s panel included the “whole spectrum” of human trafficking, from people trained to recognize trafficking to organizations that work to assist victims of exploitation.
The panelists ranged from international law and policy expert Dr. Tuula Nieminen to Jane Townsley, an inspector with the British Transport Police, and from Patience Ashorkor Quaye, the head of an anti-human trafficking unit in Ghana, to the John Temple, the first ever chief of the Human Trafficking Response Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
McGee was invited to discuss Starfish Project, an organization that teaches exploited women in Asia to create jewelry, while also teaching them valuable business and life skills.
Starfish Project has a Goshen-based office, 118 S. Main Street, and three locations in Asia.
“One of the biggest lessons I have learned from my experience working with survivors of human trafficking and exploitation is that we can expect more,” McGee said during her speech. “We can expect these women to achieve more than we as practitioners often expect them to achieve.”
Women who complete the program are given real career opportunities that will benefit not only their futures, but the futures of their family as well, she said.
“… We see women, who arrive at Starfish Project, with their hair in the face, slouched over, filled with shame and unwilling to look you in the eye. But a couple years later we see these women as mothers and wives. Confident business women who are leading production units, taking business trips to train women in another branch about jewelry production, or leading our community services team,” McGee said.
The experience to speak at the United Nations, albeit intimidating, was a great opportunity to share the story of the difference Starfish Project is making, McGee said Thursday during an interview in Goshen.
“Here I come from Indiana and I’m living in Asia and I end up speaking in New York,” McGee said, smiling at the unlikelihood of it all. “But it was really cool to be with people who have the same mission as we do, but are from all over the world.”
McGee graduated from Concord High School in 1995 and then studied English literature at Bethel College.
It was during her time at Bethel that she studied abroad in China and decided to move there in 2002. McGee currently lives in Beijing, China with her husband, Doug.
Starfish Project was born several years later as McGee began to meet some of the women who had been working in prostitution in Asia.
As she spoke to the women, most who lived in deep poverty in the countryside and had very little value in their villages, McGee said she learned that what they wanted was to have a stable life.
“I’ve always been interested in humanitarianism, but Starfish Project really came out of those relationships I built with the women — getting to know them and wanting to help them,” McGee said Thursday.
She created Starfish Project, a jewelry making company, in order to meet the economic needs of the women, but also to help them secure basic business skills they could carry forward even after they left the organization to start their own businesses or gain management positions at other companies.
The women who work at Starfish Project create jewelry, but they are also provided shelter, counseling, access to health care, medical insurance and retirement benefits. In addition, they receive computer training and can apply to study other courses such as photography, graphic design and management.
“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 dream,” she said during her speech in New York. “But as I got to know then women and started asking about their dreams, I realized that poverty has a way of stripping people of their ability to dream.”
While in New York, McGee also spoke with several large-scale retailers in hopes of gaining more exposure for the business and expanding sales in the United States.
The conversations went extremely well, McGee said.
Unlike a traditional business, Starfish Project aims to not just sell a large number of products for the profit, but to increase production in order to employ as many women as possible, she explained.
“If we can sell thousands of products, that’s a lot more lives we can help,” she said.
In the coming weeks, Starfish Project will begin a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the expansion and additional production that will be needed to supply the American retailers.
Kickstarter — www.kickstarter.com — is an online fundraising platform based in the United States that connects donors with projects in need of financial support.
Local residents can also help by purchasing jewelry online at www.starfish-project.com or through one of Starfish Project’s approximately 100 women who participate in the Advocates of Hope program.
The women sign up to sell Starfish Project jewelry and earn a commission on their sales while advocating for women around the globe, McGee explained.
“There are a lot of people who are interested in the issue of human trafficking, but don’t know how to start to get involved,” she said. “This is a really practical way to do that.”