I never would have recognized her had I passed her on the street. She hardly seems like the same woman I saw in the video. She is literally glowing. Her hair falls down her back in long, gorgeous braids. Her belly is round with her first child. She is relaxed, but has a command of her audience. She oozes strength and speaks with authority. She has this incredible “vibe.” I am almost instantly infatuated with her.
It’s a little surreal, me sitting here in Africa, speaking (through two interpreters and three different languages) with a woman who has survived unspeakable horrors. Me: the girl who does not travel well. The girl who gets terrible motion sickness, hates heat, hates bugs, hates germs. How in the world did God decide on this girl? And yet here I am. I’ve traveled halfway around the world to get a glimpse into her world. I could never begin to identify with what she’s endured. But I can identify with her as a woman; an entrepreneur; a mom-to-be.
Her name is Ofelia.
How Did I Get Here?
My story started with a stirring within me about my job several years ago. I’d been working for more than 20 years in tv and video production. I had a great career—many exciting opportunities, and never a dull moment. But I was feeling burned out…and I began to dream about doing something with more purpose and meaning.
About that time, I was approached by my friend and former pastor, Dave Terpstra, with an idea he had to provide job opportunities for sex trafficking survivors in Africa by collecting used bras for the women to sell. He said that bras are considered a luxury item in that part of the world and commanded top dollar in the used clothing market. He wanted to call it “Free The Girls.”
I thought the idea was absolute genius! What a clever name! And a cool way for women to personally and directly help other women across the globe! I had bras in the back of my drawer that I could give! My mind was already racing with clever bra puns. Dave had asked me for help with a promotional video, but as I learned more about girls – as young as 8 or 10 — being kidnapped from their families and forced into prostitution, I was gripped by a need to do more. I HAD to do more. I could feel God pulling me in that direction and honestly, I never gave it a second thought. It just felt like the right thing to do from the start. Since Dave and his family were moving to Mozambique, we agreed that I would run things stateside, while he focused on getting the program up and running overseas.
We officially launched in August 2010, right after Dave and his family moved to Mozambique. We expected to collect a few hundred bras here and there, and send the bras in suitcases once or twice a year with people visiting Dave and his family. And we hoped within a year we’d find a safe house to partner with.
But God had other plans. Dave found our first safehouse partner, Project Purpose, within four months. By that time, we were already receiving boxes of bras from all over the country—just through word of mouth and Facebook. Free The Girls had struck a chord with the public! Maybe because bras provide a tangible way for women to help other women, and also because bras are something you wear — close to your heart –that can literally change another woman’s life. Empower her. Give her dignity.
By the time the first rescued girls in our pilot program started selling bras in the spring of 2011, we had collected over 20,000 bras here in the States! But we could not afford to ship them overseas.
In February 2012, we were featured in a 3-part series of stories by CNN’s Freedom Project. The response was amazing, with an outpouring of support from all over the world! As a result, a man who works for a shipping company reached out to ship the bras all the way to Mozambique for us at no cost. And a truck driver volunteered to drive the bras from Denver to Chicago, where the shipment would originate. Ordinary people who stepped up to play their part in changing the lives of women they’d never met.
We shipped over 32,000 bras to Mozambique in July 2012. Since the bras arrived, we’re happy to report that we’ve been able to replicate the results of our successful pilot program and add more women to our program, for a current total of 20. The women sell between 100-500 bras each per month. CNN aired a 30-minute follow-up documentary on Free The Girls on February 15, 2013 (watch online here). And we’re growing faster than we ever could have imagined! New pilot programs are launching in Kenya, Uganda and El Salvador this year.
Back to Mozambique
The woman I finally got to meet face–to-face, Ofelia, was trafficked into prostitution when she was 12 years old (read her story here). She is one of the three women who participated in our pilot program in Mozambique. Today, she earns enough money selling bras to support herself, her boyfriend, her sister, and her sister’s three children–with enough left over to convert her house from reeds to bricks. She recently completed her new house, and gave birth to her first child–a daughter! We’re so excited about her daughter’s future. She will NOT be vulnerable to traffickers! Ofelia will be able to afford to send her daughter to school. The trajectory of their entire family has changed.
Bigger Than All of Us
One of the biggest surprises has been how Free The Girls has impacted the lives of not only the women in our program, like Ofelia, but the people who support our program through donations of time, money and bras. The survivor of sex abuse who can quietly connect with a woman halfway around the world whose pain she knows too well; the lonely widow finally coming out of her shell and easing the sting of her grief by focusing on others; family members who donate the bras of their now-deceased loved one; a mom wanting to honor the memory of her beautiful daughter called home way too soon. When I hear these stories I am humbled by how God can weave our lives together.
And I’m humbled by how God has used Free The Girls to change me, too. Helping to build and run a non-profit with no prior experience has been so exciting—and terrifying at times! I’ve learned that sometimes I need to just get out of my own way, because God’s “got this.” I’m learning that not only does He call us in different ways, but He equips us with what we need to do the work He asks of us. Looking back, I can clearly see where He has prepared me for much of what I’m doing now. He had this plan all along.
This is the first time I’ve been able to really see God in action firsthand. Dave and I like to dream big, but God consistently shows us that He is so much bigger. Time after time He has provided through seemingly random opportunities, coincidences, and divine appointments: CNN hearing about our tiny startup; the shipping company exec who happened to be watching our story on CNN in Hungary; the truck driver who had reached out just the day before to Truckers Against Trafficking to ask how he could do more to help. Too many to name and the only word I can think of is the title of a new book by Margaret Feinberg, Wonderstruck. That’s how I feel seeing God at work in Free The Girls.
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