iSanctuary art gives sex trade victims hope

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By Tracy Manzer, Staff Writer, Press-Telegram, Long Beach, CA

LONG BEACH – Some of humanity’s most horrific moments have led to some of our most exquisite works of art.

Take Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” or “The Disasters of War” print series by Francisco Goya.

Both artists created images that are achingly beautiful and terrible all at once.

It is art that delivers a message that has moved people in a way mere words can’t.

Some might say it is similar to the work of a small group of girls and young women in Mumbai, India; women and girls who were rescued from a life of prostitution, abuse and the global plight of human trafficking by a small Orange County nonprofit organization called iSanctuary.

Those rescued, ages 12 to 25, take the pain, humiliation and degradation they suffered and – with the help of mentors, counseling and education provided by iSanctuary – turn their experiences into beautiful little works of wearable art.

The jewelry they craft by hand with colorful beads and stones not only gives the survivors sustenance by providing a paying job, it also brings joy and peace of mind to survivors learning they are worth more than the bodies abused by people and traded for money. They are individuals, as vibrant and powerful as the necklaces, earrings and bracelets they create.

“Being able to make something and have people appreciate it and want to buy it, it gets the girls so excited,” says Wendy Hicks. “That’s an important step in helping them develope a real sense of self-worth.”

Hicks is the co-founder of iSanctuary, or International Sanctuary, headquartered in Irvine.

The organization was forged in a friendship with co-founder Stephanie Pollaro that began about five years ago after Hicks took a church-sponsored trip to India following the deadly tsunami of 2004, a trip led by Pollaro.

Both women were struck by the need of so many people struggling amid staggering poverty. Though many people tell the pair the problems are 

insurmountable, the two women still feel something can and should be done.

“I think you have to focus on what you can do,” Hicks says. “What are you going to do after going there and seeing that? You can’t un-see these things.”

“It’s not up to us whether it’s successful, it’s up to us to do our parts.”

Their parts have taken several years of hard work, which included Pollaro moving to Mumbai, where she lives today, and Hicks moving into the home of Pollaro’s parents in Orange County, where Hicks slept and worked in the same cramped bedroom until they were able to afford the Irvine office earlier this year.

Pollaro and Hicks didn’t start to draw their small salaries until about a year ago and their staff consists of a coordinator who works with Pollaro and the survivors in Mumbai, one part-time bookkeeper who works at the Irvine office, a database of 100 contacts and a core group of about 20 regular volunteers.

That roster includes Randi Castillo, a retired Long Beach Police Department Sex Crimes detective who began volunteering with iSanctuary after learning about the group’s existence when her son saw a woman wearing one of the organization’s bracelets and asked about it.

Because she spent nearly her entire 28-year career in the Sex Crimes Detail, Castillo knows first hand the devastating toll sex abuse takes on its victims, and she is the first to point out that every survivor who opens up to Pollaro is a rare triumph.

For the retired officer, iSanctuary is an opportunity to do something she never had the chance to do as an investigator, she says.

“When you’re in law enforcement it’s all about the investigation, taking the case to court, you don’t get to see what happens with the victims after,” Castillo says. “Working here, we do bring these girls hope. For me that’s bringing it all full circle.”

The girls and women they work with are usually identified in raids in the red light district of Mumbai and moved into crowded and cramped group homes that are designed to rehabilitate sex workers, but rarely succeed.

Even for iSanctuary, the success has been slow, though significant, Hicks and Castillo say.

For the first time in three years, they have a small group of girls and young women earning a living through the jewelry production, with the money used to rent them a shared apartment and help them with job skills, education and counseling. The goal is to one day see the survivors move out on their own and secure independent jobs.

“There’s a zero percent success rate,” Hicks admits. “Stephanie will tell you that you lose so many girls, they run away, get re-trafficked … many of them die.”

“These girls are the first real sign of re-integration we’ve had,” she says.

The ability to help heal those few victims and give them a shot at a normal life is one reason iSanctuary’s program is respected, so much so that they were asked by the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force to create a sister program for victims in the United States for those brought into the country and for American youths trapped in the ugly trade of human trafficking.

The biggest challenge for a local program is money, Hicks says.

In India the U.S. dollar goes a long way. Here the money brought in by iSanctuary’s on line and retail sales and donations isn’t enough to sustain a local program.

“When we met with (the task force) I told them we could provide English classes, mentorships, counseling,” Hicks says.

“When I talked with Stephanie and told her that she said, `They need a paycheck!’,” Hicks says. “I (said), `I know, but how?”‘

However. Hicks and Pollaro are not likely to give up, as evidenced by their refusal to back down in the midst of staggering numbers of those in need in Mumbai along with the social and cultural restrictions that make rehabilitation and second chances nearly impossible in that region of the world.

The women are researching grant opportunities and are constantly looking for support, ranging from being one of many nonprofits participating in Macy’s Shop for a Cause 2010 this October, to their goal of having iSanctuary’s sales of jewelry in every state in the nation. They’re nearly there with Internet purchases in more than 40 states and several stores across the country carrying the jewelry and a line of custom stationary donated by Tori Higa to benefit their cause.

The efforts also include a third birthday celebration for iSanctuary scheduled for Saturday, at the organization’s Irvine office, where shoppers can buy the jewelry.

Those interested in helping can also shop inside the office’s show room three days a week with an appointment, call 949- 752-7788.

Purchases and donations can also be made online at www.isanctuary.org.

And there is a lot to see and buy.

The jewelry has a contemporary bohemian feel, ranging from simple and elegant to edgy and fun with beautiful color combinations and a mix of textures.

A number of pieces are inspired by the rich colors found in peacock feathers. The feather appears on the group’s website, business cards and other items as its logo and was chosen because it denotes “beauty, integrity and new life,” Hicks says.

The designs are dreamed up by Pollaro and each of the girls makes every item in India.

Above all, the work is professional and offers something for nearly everyone’s taste.

“We don’t want a pity purchase,” Hicks insists. “We want it to be just as marketable as anything else out there.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Orange County-based iSanctuary is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the victims of human trafficking and the sex industry in Mumbai, India, and here in the United States. To help the survivors, ages 12 to 25, the organization teaches them how to make jewelry which is sold across the United States with the proceeds going into accounts for the survivors. The funds are used to provide education and job training as well as housing and counseling.

Those interested in purchasing jewelry from survivors can do so by visiting the organization’s website, http://www.isanctuary.org, or by shopping at one of two local retailers: Laurie’s Little Secret, 4133 Viking Way, in Long Beach; and A Place of Our Own Hair Salon and Art Studio, 10631 Los Alamitos Blvd., in Los Alamitos.

The nonprofit group’s show room is also open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the last Saturday of each month. Shoppers are asked to call and make an appointment, 949-752-7788. Also, this Saturday, will include a third birthday celebration for iSanctuary with special favors and thank you gifts given to those attending from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. – Tracy Manzer

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