starfish project; Using fashion to redeem broken stories
More than 15 years ago, Jenny McGee, now founder and CEO of Starfish Project, moved from the U.S. to Asia with her husband. In a short time, Jenny felt a real burden for the women she witnessed working in the red-light district. What started as an outreach to these women evolved into a small jewelry business, offering an opportunity for freedom and healing for victims of exploitation and human trafficking. In 2007, and with humble beginnings, Starfish Project was born. Five women worked out of an apartment handcrafting beautiful jewelry, and in just 10 years, the business has grown and employed more than 125 women affected by human trafficking and exploitation in Asia. Today, we’re talking with Virginia Scharf, Chief Strategy Officer at Starfish Project, and getting a first-hand look at how this jewelry business is using fashion as a catalyst to redeem broken stories.
What inspired you to want to work for Starfish Project, and how has your time with this organization impacted you personally?
I studied Business and Mandarin at the University of Virginia. I really enjoy business and thought a lot about what it means to employ people well. After college, when I was living in Asia with my husband, he told me about Starfish Project and said, “You should really go volunteer there. They have a similar heart to you, where they believe that business can really accomplish something redemptive and beautiful.” I began volunteering there and fell in love with the girls and their stories. Starfish Project has given me a vision that social enterprises can be an effective means of rehabilitating an at-risk or traumatized population.
How does Starfish Project work in the local communities to rescue women who are being trafficked?
At Starfish Project, we do three things: we help women experience freedom, establish independence and develop careers. As part of our work, we conduct outreach in the red-light district through a mix of local staff and foreigners. Our outreach teams go out every week to build relationships with the women who work there. The goal of experiencing freedom starts with physical freedom. One woman on our outreach team, Zi Yun, used to be a brothel owner herself. In an incredible story of redemption, she now goes back into the same areas where she used to recruit girls to join her brothel, but now she recruits them to work for Starfish Project. Her story gives me hope that even brothel owners can experience freedom too.
Starfish Project goes beyond beautifully crafted jewelry, and has a wonderful focus on growth and restoration for each woman being rescued. Can you briefly explain what happens once a woman is rescued and brought to Starfish Project?
When a woman is ready to leave the red-light district, we have an intake program that brings them into our shelter. The women that come from brothels bring all their worldly possessions in a grocery sack, so we have to meet their basic needs. When they arrive, they immediately start in jewelry production where they work alongside 12 other women. They are mentored by the older women and we give them a manageable and clear workload. Within a few weeks, they really start to build a sense of pride in the orders they accomplished for the day, and that’s the kind of dignity we want them to experience early on. From there, the women have the chance to move up into new positions when they are ready and learn other vocational skills! Throughout our program, they have access to counseling, parenting classes, and life skills classes. We want to serve as a platform where they come into our program and leave with real independence, where they have a career that can support their family.
What are some ways we can get involved with Starfish Project to help rescue and restore victims of trafficking?
The best thing that people can do to help Starfish Project is to share our story with their community. Our work is only possible with a really wide community supporting our work with these women. Communities are not built through advertising and promotions; they are built by relationships. We see that in the work we do every day, and relationships are where transformation and redemption really happens. We think that relational community extends to our volunteer and customer base as well. The most powerful things you can do to get involved are buying jewelry and sharing our story with your community.
"Communities are not built through advertising and promotions; they are built by relationships."
I have loved following the stories of the women who have been rescued and restored through SP – do you have a story that has resonated with you?
There is a woman named June whose story I just love! She comes from an ethnic minority, has a very difficult background, and she’s just a couple months younger than me. June’s story is particularly meaningful and exciting to me because she offers a real-life blueprint for how somebody’s job can radically transform her life. We’ve seen her utterly transform to where she can read, write, use Photoshop and more. Our photographer, Luke Cleland, trained June on product photography, which is really challenging and difficult. We wanted to speed up the process for customers to see new designs. It seemed impossible for her to become competent at product photography, but this past fall, June took all of our product images for our website! When she’s ready, she will be able to leave Starfish Project with a viable skill that she can use to support herself and her family. June is also married and has an adorable baby. She is really breaking the cycle of poverty for her family.
This year, Starfish Project collaborated with Dressember and Elegantees, giving away a piece of jewelry for the first 300 individuals who purchased a Dressember dress! What do you love about Dressember, and why did you all want to get involved in this year’s campaign?
Dressember does two things so beautifully: One, it offers a tangible, lighthearted way to make a real difference to human trafficking victims. The second thing I love is that at Starfish Project, we care most about relationships, and I think Dressember uses the same relational model to do their work. As a community, Dressember advocates are making an impact on the people they do life with, and we love that!
Starfish Project released their Fall line earlier this year, and it’s gorgeous! What are your favorite styles from the collection?
I love the Scout Earrings! They are named for my black and white dog, which is so fun! And then the Katherine Necklace – it comes in gold and rose gold, and is a classic everyday piece. I also really love the Mary Catherine Bracelet, which comes in rose and silver!
About the Author
Michaela Judge is a military veteran and Southern transplant. As a Public Relations specialist by day, she is overjoyed to use her love of writing to help fight for freedom and justice through Dressember! Her favorite moments are spent with her husband, Phil, and daughter, Ellie, adventuring in Charleston, South Carolina, and spreading hospitality .