It’s always been my heart’s desire to make a difference while doing something I love. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about people and I genuinely want to help them. So when I had the opportunity to join F&C’s team this past November it was a no brainer. And after being on staff for only a month, I was given the opportunity to visit our project in Ecuador.
My prayer leading up to Quito was that God would open my eyes and heart to whatever He wanted me to see. I spent weeks preparing myself because I knew this trip was a special assignment that He planned just for me and I didn’t want to miss a single second of it!
As I sat on the plane waiting to take off, I felt ready. I knew the Lord was going to move in a way I hadn’t experienced yet, but I didn’t expect for Him to absolutely wreck me.
I got back from Ecuador on January 26th and to be perfectly honest, I’m still not sure I’m ready to write this blog. It’s not because I haven’t tried – I’ve sat down more times than I care to count, but the end result has always been the same.
My mind has been running wild with all the things I’ve wanted to tell you, but when I’ve tried to put it all on paper, I’ve found that the words don’t do the experiences justice.
Instead, I end up sitting on my couch in a puddle of tears and melted gelato distraught by feelings of anger and despair.
I know those are some strong words and I don’t blame you if think that makes my trip sound super depressing, but I can promise you it was anything but.
Until a month ago I hadn’t really been exposed to poverty and I definitely didn’t understand the harrowing process or effects of human trafficking.
I’d been living life in my cushy little bubble, but now, I know some things. My bubble has been burst wide open and I can’t keep those things to myself anymore.
So let’s start with the facts:
- In order to even qualify for a minimum wage job in Quito, you must have a high school diploma
- Minimum wage is $350 a month
- Public school can be expensive. Parents have to pay for supplies, books, uniforms, etc. which can cost upwards of $600 a year (per child)
- Prostitution is legal in Quito if a woman is 18+
At this point you might be wondering why any of that matters. And it matters because 25% of Quito lives below the poverty line. In the poorer villages young women don’t have the financial means to attend school and if they don’t graduate, they won’t ever hold a minimum wage job.
It’s a cruel cycle that forces them to continue living in impoverished communities and can lead them to either A) sell whatever they have to make ends meet, including themselves or B) take risky “job opportunities” that turn out to be entry points into the relentless ring of human trafficking.
On my third day in Ecuador I visited our project site, where we employ women who are human trafficking survivors. To help me better understand our artisans and their pasts our Project Manager, Desi, thought it would be good for me to see where many of them came from.
So she took me to the Center City – straight to the heart of the red light district.
I’m not going to lie, I was expecting to go to a very rundown part of town with lots of dirty alleys and crumbling buildings (has anyone seen Taken?!). But when we got there it was not only one of the most idyllic streets I’d seen in Quito, but my ignorance was apparent.
We spent over an hour talking to women on the streets and as I heard their stories my heart shattered over and over again. I desperately wanted to take each of them to our safe house and help them start over, but there was nothing I could do. In that moment I was already doing everything I could by loving on them and telling them there was hope, but it still didn’t feel like enough.
When we got back to the car, it wasn’t long before the tears started streaming. I was SO angry – angry at the situation, the circumstances and the system.
My mind was racing with a million questions, but the question that changed everything for me was this: “How much money do they actually make?”
I never could have prepared myself for Desi’s response and it cut through me like bitter air on a freezing night - - - “On average $7, but once things like the room fee have been deducted, it comes out to about $4. In brothels it’s less than that.”
The cost of a Starbucks coffee.
I was stunned.
And it was in that moment that I had the bleak realization that prostitution and human trafficking are intricately tangled in the same web – the web of poverty. Like a nasty plague living off its host, you can’t have one without the other.
I’ve struggled a lot since I’ve been home wondering how in the world you stop poverty because if you stop poverty then you can stop trafficking, right?
But that’s the million-dollar question isn’t it? People have devoted their entire lives to solving the problem and we still don’t have the answer. I don’t have the answer either.
But God wanted me to wake up and He took me to another continent to do it.
He sends me a reminder every day in the form of the number 4. I can no longer see the number 4 without seeing a person or one of our artisans. I haven’t had Starbucks since I got back and it’s not because I’m trying to make some kind of statement or get attention.
It's solely because I know there are thousands of women in Quito alone that are losing themselves for that very same amount – the cost of my grande iced skim caramel machiatto is the cost of someone else’s dignity.
I'm not okay with that.
My first trip to Ecuador was full of experiences I’ll never forget and I’m thankful for it. As crazy and cliché as it sounds, I truly believe it’s changed me. God has given me a new purpose, a new perspective and a new assignment. My job is no longer just about jewelry.
I now have a responsibility to continue helping the ones we can, to reach the ones we can’t and to tell the stories of those who can’t speak for themselves. It’s my job to shine a light on all the injustice in the world and to show you how your dollars are truly changing the lives of our artisans.
It’s a really big assignment and I know we can’t help everyone, but doing something is better than doing nothing.
And never in my life have I felt so helpless, yet so hopeful, which is a paradigm I’m still trying to process.