Our own Julie Wood, Minister of Missions, is in China visiting Jennifer Melton, a St. Andrew’s member who was commissioned to serve in-country with Starfish Project. Jennifer has worked with the organization for 6 years and was thrilled to share more about it with us through Julie’s visit.
Starfish Project is an organization that restores hope to women escaping human trafficking and exploitation in Asia. They provide life-changing opportunities through a three-pronged approach to restoration: shelter, counseling, employment, and education. What’s created is a broad social enterprise where women create beautiful jewelry while becoming managers, accountants, graphic designers, and photographers. Starfish Project has employed over 100 women and has served thousands through Community Outreach Services.Julie met with the support staff and listened to stories of hope and restoration that the women have experienced, including testimonies of the women’s transformation and healing. Afterwards, she spent time with the women and learned about each of their specific roles, from design, accounting, production, supply, exporting, and more. She shared being struck by the joyfulness of the women, how they were not in any way defined by their past experiences, but have found hope and joy in their life.
One highlight of the office tour was Julie’s impromptu English lessons. The women were very brave and practiced their English with her! Starfish Project’s education program goes beyond the skills they learn to produce the jewelry. The majority of women at Starfish Project have only completed the second grade. Starfish provides in-house literacy, math and computer classes that allow the women to reach a standardized education level. Two of the women are even studying for their college entrance exams! Another woman with no formalized education can now help her daughter with her homework through the equipping she’s received.
After their visit to the office, Jennifer took Julie to her favorite local restaurant and shared authentic local cuisine together.
Later that afternoon, Jennifer took Julie out to a migrant village to show her where Starfish reaches out to the women still in exploitation. The women that Starfish Project employ are mostly from rural villages in the countryside. When they come to the city, they often find jobs and housing within a smaller migrant community with less expensive accommodations.
Each week, Starfish volunteers visit the “shops” to build relationships with women still in exploitation. They share about the opportunity to work for Starfish as an alternative to their current reality. Sometimes building relationship looks like watching one of the women’s favorite tv shows. Other days, it is a conversation about favorite food, hobbies or the children. It looks different each time, but the goal of meeting the women where they are and making them feel known and loved is always the same.
Women working in the “shops” often work 15 hours a day and have limited control over their schedules. Often, even food is brought in to them because they are not allowed to leave the premises. These shops are inconspicuously located next to ordinary businesses like convenience stores, hair salons, or restaurants. If you didn’t know what to look for, you could walk right by. Julie observed how different this was from her other experiences in red light districts.