Why Ten Years Matters

Why Ten Years Matters

Ten years is a long time. Your whole life can change in ten years. Ten years is a long enough time to grow up and in be in 4th grade already, right? They even have a name for when ten years passes – a decade. For wedding anniversaries, ten is the year for tin and aluminum gifts. Go figure! That requires some creativity for gift giving – maybe we should change it to sari blankets, instead.

Sari Bari is approaching the ten year milestone this month on February 20th. It is not lost on us how important this anniversary is, and we want to mark and celebrate it well. We love to celebrate at Sari Bari, so a party was always going to happen. Even so, we also need to thoughtfully mark the miracle of still being in business.

Ten years is a significant milestone for a business. Did you know that 96% of businesses fail in the first ten years? That means only 4 out of every 100 business successfully make it past the ten year mark. I am curious to know what percentage of those are social enterprises. Since social business has been relatively new in the last 10 years, there is not much out there in terms of data for tracking this emerging business type. However, we are beyond thankful to one of the lucky 4%.

So here are a few reasons we think we made it this far. We must also clearly state that we have had more than our fair share of serious doses of miracle, mystery, and magic that made a way when there clearly was not! So here we go with the tangibles:

Cash flow: Inc.com indicates that those who manage cash flow well are the ones that make it. And we would have to agree on that one, but it’s not the only thing that made the last ten years work.

Collaboration: This is the big one. I mean really big. Instead of competing with other local social businesses in Kolkata, we have shared, and they have shared. We are all share-y and generous together! We have also had a lot of help from groups like Justice Ventures International, Freeset, Passion 2012, and a few individuals that taught us how to do business better.

But for us, collaboration is not just outside the office with other businesses. Collaboration is practiced within our walls and key to our ability to grow and be sustainable. The women of Sari Bari are not receivers; they are collaborators in the business for their freedom and the freedom of others.

They have buy-in, and as a result, Sari Bari is theirs not only in spirit but in tangible and practical ways. Women at Sari Bari are invited to become shareholders after completing 5 years of employment. Currently 14 women are shareholders and another 19 women have been invited to become shareholders., In 2016 we will also see two women from Sari Bari appointed as Directors in the company. When we say collaboration, we mean it. We also believe that collaboration means Sari Bari will be able to continue to tap into the profound potential and capacity for growth in the women themselves.

Capacity: As a rule, there is never enough capacity in a social enterprise; there is too much work, too many dreams to build, and not enough people to do it. And yes, capacity is a challenge at Sari Bari as well. But we have a beautiful gift in the capacity we do have because of the women who have risen to leadership. The women of Sari Bari themselves are leading as strong, compassionate, and empowered managers. Any business would be lucky to have them!

Cool Hardware: Okay not really…well maybe! Alright, yes, we do have cool hardware, but the important thing is why we have really cool hardware. It’s because we care about the product being something we want to buy ourselves. We care about beauty, and we care about quality. So yes, maybe cool hardware is a key component to making it ten years J

Compassionate Community: The bottom line is this: we are a community committed to embodied hope, lived out with friends. And we are in it together.  No one rides solo on this train!

Ten years matters because it means we have a laid a good foundation for the next ten years, a foundation on which to continue to build a business and a community that creates freedom and opportunity for women have been exploited in the sex trade or women who are vulnerable to being trafficked.

At Sari Bari we can only step back in awe and with gratitude and say thank you to each other, to the hundreds of volunteers and interns, to the expat and Indian staff, to the women themselves for believing they could do it and then doing it, and to you our customers, cheerleaders, and supporters. We want to say a HUGE THANK YOU!

To the next ten years, or as Buzz Light Year would say….to infinity and beyond!

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2015… what a year it’s been!

2015… what a year it’s been!

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The flurry of Christmas is over. You’re full of turkey, you’ve hit the malls for post-Christmas sales, and the whirlwind of family gatherings are coming to an end.

In a few hours, you’ll say goodbye to 2015, and a whole new year will begin, filled with hopeful vision for what lies ahead.

But before the next 365 days start their course, take a moment to stop.

Pause. Breathe.

We’re taking a moment to look back and become thankful for all that’s happened. We’re not sure about you, but it’s seemed like somewhat of a chatoic, but amazing, year. We’ve welcomed more women into our family, launched new product lines, and pursued an opportunity to buy a new building. We’ve seen women regain their confidence as they’ve graduated from training, and we’ve seen others step out into leadership roles.   

At times, it’s felt like we have had to overcome some daunting feats… like raising $250,000 to open a new building. Such a huge target, and yet through generous support, we made it! Now, in 2016, we’ll welcome more women into freedom.

We just wanted to take a small moment to say thank you. Thanks for being such amazing customers, advocates and friends. Without you, this year would not have been what it is.

Here’s to 2016… may it be filled with bigger dreams, clear vision and uncontained freedom. 

Christmas in Kolkata

Christmas in Kolkata

 

Every family has their Christmas traditions, and Sari Bari is no different.

Each year, there’s a myriad of color and activity as the women celebrate this important time of the year. Out come the balloons, streamers, music, presents and food… lots of food. There’s dancing and joy in abundance.

We do Christmas Indian-style over here.

Christmas is not that big of a deal in Kolkata because it’s usually seen as any other festival. In the West, Christmas decorations go up at the end of November, and there’s always a buzz around the season, which crescendos into a big celebration. But over here, decorations go up only a few days before Christmas Day. It’s a quick event – you set up the decorations, you have the celebration, and then you take it all down.

Sari Bari is closed for Christmas Day, so the Sari Bari units have their own festivities in the week before Christmas. The night before the party, the women will stay back late from work to hang streamers and blow up balloons on their own time.

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The parties usually start with the women sharing ‘cha’ and snacks in the morning, often while singing Bengali Christmas carols. Managers lead the women in a time of reflection about the meaning of Christmas.

And there are gifts… no Christmas is complete without an exchange of gifts! Each year, there’s a different gift selected for the women, whether it’s a bracelet or shawl. But most years, managers hand-select a beautiful new sari for each woman. It’s a special time where the women are individually presented with a gift that’s been chosen, just for them.

One year we gave the women two silver bracelets, and many of the women kept one bracelet for themselves, but gave the other one away to a close friend or a daughter. It’s amazing to watch these women live such generous lives. And if you visit Sari Bari, you’ll notice many of the ladies wearing their bracelet each day!

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In true Christmas form, after gift giving, we eat. Everyone lines up to fill their bellies with food served from big silver pots, overflowing with food. And then it’s dancing time. Our prevention unit hosts the most lively dance party… they roll out the sound system and EVERYONE joins in. There’s so much laughter and joy. What a way to celebrate!

Merry Christmas from the Sari Bari family! We trust you and your families celebrate with full bellies, big smiles and thankful hearts.

Written by Nicole Peck

Could you take this life-changing risk?

Could you take this life-changing risk?

Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve taken the first step on a path, but you have no idea where it ends up. You’ve heard rumours that life is better at the end, but you’ve never seen it for yourself. Would you take the risk?

That’s what it’s like for the women who take their first, trembling step into freedom, and become trainees at Sari Bari.

For some of these women, they have never held a pencil and can’t read or write. They’ve never sewed anything in their life and even if they could, they can’t see well enough to thread a needle. Their families talk them out of starting a new job, and each day, people tell them they won’t succeed… that they’ll be back on the line by the end of the month.

And yet despite all these challenges, our trainees muster the incredible courage to start afresh and begin a six-month training process with us.

One of the biggest struggles for women transitioning out of the trade and into a different sort of work is learning to look at themselves in a different way,” says Melissa, Sari Bari’s Director of Aftercare (outgoing). “The general cultural message is that they’re ruined; that they’re damaged goods and there’s nothing for them beyond the life they’ve come from.”

It takes such incredible courage and self-determination for a woman to stand in defiance to what everyone is saying about her and believe that there is something else for her,” Melissa says.

You see this shift in the women from, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it’, to slowly believing in themselves and that they can do it. The women of Sari Bari reach out their hands and encourage the trainees. They say, ‘I was there once, I know it’s hard, but if I can do it, so can you’.”

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Sari Bari’s training involves many facets: job skills, education, mental health, life skill classes and health checks. The first three months of training is part-time to allow the women to adjust to having a work schedule.

The women come to us with all different educational backgrounds. Some women have had no education and don’t know a single Bengali letter, while others have had a 4th or 5th Grade education, but they’ve forgotten most of what they knew. And then very rarely, we’ve had women who have an education almost up to a high school standard,” Melissa says.

Sari Bari offers daily education classes that cater to whatever educational level the women have. So, for some who have no literacy, we teach Bengali letters and basic math. For women who have had access to education, we do reading comprehension or basic English. In the past, we’ve also taught basic computer skills.

Our goal is that every woman can write their own name so they can sign for their salary,” Melissa says. 

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Once a week, the women participate in a group mental health session, where they can build community with the other trainees. “We help them understand their emotions and rebuild self-respect,” Melissa says.

During training, the women also receive specialised classes on topics like women’s health, diabetes, nutrition and basic budgeting.

Health screening is another important aspect of training. “After a month, we take the women to have their eyes checked and then pay for glasses if they need them. At the end of training, we do Well Woman Check Ups, where we find all sorts of conditions like HIV, other STDs, cancer, thyroid issues and high cholesterol. Once we do the preventative check-up, the women can access any treatment through our company health insurance,” Melissa says.

But a major part of the training process is celebration.

At Sari Bari, we believe in celebration. In this reality, where there are many things to grieve and many things that break our hearts, celebration reminds us of hope and that transformation is possible,” she says.

In the first week of training, we celebrate the women’s freedom birthdays with a cake and a ‘Happy Birthday’ song. “We continue to mark that for every year. It’s a sacred time, as we call everyone together and look back. It gives them a chance to reflect on their own journey, which becomes a great source of encouragement to women who are newer on the journey.”

You have a chance to get involved in a trainees’ transformation.  A $30 donation will help us support a trainee for one month, and a $180 donation will support a trainee during her entire six-month training. If you’re in a position to give, we’d value your generous support!

Written by Nicole Peck

She’s a leader like no other

She’s a leader like no other

Gita was only 17 years old when she stepped into the small room where Sari Bari started, on the first day our doors opened. She was there to teach our first three heroes how to sew.

Gita has always done things her own way, by her own rules. She’s strong, stylish and willing to take on new challenges. Whatever hardship she endures, Gita takes it on.

It’s only a lady with these sorts of attributes who as a teenager could risk visiting the red light area to teach women how to sew, for a business that was only just starting.

At the beginning, I was very scared because I’d heard a lot about the red light area and I was afraid that something would happen,” she shares. But Gita persisted, determined to face her fears to help the women of Sari Bari.

I was doing vocational training, and from there, I was introduced to Sarah Lance [Sari Bari’s Co-founder]. I started as a trainer, teaching the women to sew. And then I gradually took on more responsibility – I became a Production Manager, then the Prevention Unit Manager, and now I’m the Human Resources Administrator. I’ve been doing this for about 6 months,” Gita says.

Every day, I pray to God, asking Him that if this job is for me, and if this title is for me, then please prepare me so that I can fulfil this job. If He thinks I’m good in this job, then He’ll grow in me in this process.”

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Gita is excited about being a leader, but says sometimes there are hard times and struggles she must deal with. “At those times I can be worried, but I carry on anyway. I make it through. At present, I need to be prepared all the time for whatever kind of challenge comes my way.”

Her favourite part about working at Sari Bari is supporting the women and being a champion in their lives. “I love listening to them and talking with them, and sharing life with each other. I love helping them with any needs, whatever way I can. If I am able to help them, then I’m very excited and very happy.”

Gita has made lasting relationships at Sari Bari – and found mentors that will forever change the course of her life. “Sarah has become like my second mother. She’s taught me from step to step. While I was growing, Sarah was always behind me, supporting me – she even did all the arrangements for my marriage! I’ll never be able to forget Sarah because she made me who I am.”

A mother of two beautiful girls, Gita has dreams to get a college education one day. And with her resilience, there’s nothing stopping her from reaching that dream!

“Sometimes I get in a situation where I feel like I have broken down and I don’t think it’s possible for me [to press on]. But I cheer myself up and say if everyone else can do it, then I can do it too.

Written by Nicole Peck

We witness a different sort of HIV story…

We witness a different sort of HIV story…

When we hear about HIV/AIDS, we very rarely hear good news stories. People become victims… they are labelled as just another statistic of the disease that spreads its destruction across nations.

But we here at Sari Bari witness a different sort of story.

We see women with the disease become empowered through the healing and treatment process. They aren’t powerless victims, they are courageous overcomers.

I’ve accompanied many women in their journey with HIV,” says Melissa, Sari Bari’s Director of Aftercare (outgoing). “For me personally, it’s overwhelming when someone has a positive diagnosis, to be the one who tells them. It often feels like a weight of responsibility – I know all the work it’s going to take to get her care, and I have a lot of fear about what lies ahead for her.”

But one of the things I love is then seeing the women become empowered as they secure their own treatment,” Melissa says.

There was one woman who was quite sick when we found out she was positive. The process of getting her engaged in the government treatment was very long and complicated. But it’s beautiful to see how different she is after receiving treatment. Her entire personality has shifted because she’s so much healthier. It’s amazing how that jump in her physical health has brought out this beautiful personality as she’s been able to come through some of that fear, and as she physically feels better. It’s been beautiful to see her bloom and transform.”

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Approximately 8% of the women at Sari Bari have received an HIV positive diagnosis. Most of the women do not know they are positive until joining Sari Bari – it’s usually detected during their first Well Woman Check Up.

If a woman is HIV positive, Sari Bari does two main things – we accompany her along the sometimes complicated path of treatment, and then we empower her to manage the treatment on her own. She becomes capable, rather than crippled by her diagnosis.

The Government of West Bengal provides free HIV treatment and testing. The women get tests (called a CD4 Count) done every 6 months to ensure their immunity levels remain at a healthy level. If their count falls below a certain level, they receive medication monthly.

It can be incredibly frustrating to engage treatment,” Melissa says. “So if a woman is positive, we’ll walk with her very closely in the first 6 months, helping her learn the system – taking her to appointments, completing all the paperwork, and getting her integrated into the system.” 

We also give the women vitamins every month, to help with their nutrition. And we have a way of compensating them for the time they miss at work to attend their doctors’ appointments. They also receive an additional amount every month to make sure they’re eating better.”

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According to Sari Bari’s 2014 Annual Survey, of the 104 women surveyed, 65% know what HIV is, and 60% can accurately describe how it is spread. “We try to educate the women about what HIV is and the truth behind the disease, because with education comes power, understanding and lack of fear. We fear what we don’t understand,” Melissa says.

There is a stigma against HIV/AIDS in this country. Some of that stems from lack of education and understanding of the disease and how it spreads. Awareness is improving, but there is still incredible fear and very often a lot of mistreatment of people who are positive.”

Melissa says when the women initially learn of their diagnosis, they often see themselves as a victim. “All of that is fear in not knowing, so we tell them that they can live a long and healthy life. They are not alone. There is medicine available. There are a lot of ways this disease can go, but there is still hope.”

We really value all the supporters who contribute financially, so we can provide an extra level of care to these women. For just $15, you can help us support a woman with HIV for one month. If you’re in a position to give, we’d love your support!

Written by Nicole Peck

Meet one of our first, trailblazing heroes

Meet one of our first, trailblazing heroes

When you walk into an average family home, you’ll often see photos on the wall. Celebrations, milestones, and family portraits… they’re up there, in all their glory, for everyone to see.

Sari Bari is no different – we’re a family and on our walls, there are hundreds of photos, proudly displaying our 117 heroes.

And if you took a closer look, you’d say one face staring back at you, more than the rest. That’s the face of Champa, one of the very first heroes of Sari Bari.

She’s a trailblazer… a pioneer and forerunner towards freedom. She took a big leap of faith almost 10 years ago, to join a business that hadn’t even started production yet. It was just a small rented room, and she was one of three women learning how to sew.

As I sit across from her, the first thing I notice about Champa is her smile. It’s one of the most radiant you’ll see. She laughs as she reminisces about the early years, her gentle wrinkles embedding a little deeper with every memory.

“When the new women come, I tell them they can do it; I encourage them. I tell them I’ve been able to do it, and so can they,” she says. Champa has a motherly, tender touch, which she uses to not only encourage the women who work in her unit, but also women who work the line. She’s the reason many women have found their way to Sari Bari’s bright red doors.

“I remember my first day,” Champa says. “The first day was very hard, but I committed to learning. I never missed a day of work – even if I had a fever, I would still come in. I will cherish the early days.”

When Champa arrived at Sari Bari she had no previous sewing experience, but that only made her more determined to learn. “It felt very good to sew my first blanket. I still have it, but it’s getting very old now. Whenever my husband goes out of town, I take out my blanket, lay it on the floor, and have my afternoon nap on it.”

As she thinks back to where Sari Bari started, Champa becomes passionate about the women still left to help. “It’s important for Sari Bari to keep growing – there are new women who need work. When I started, some women had been in the trade for 10 years, but now those women have been in the trade for 20 years and they might be ready to get out. We need to be there for those women.” 

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In her role, Champa is in charge of ironing and preparing all the material, straps and zippers so the ladies on the machines can do their work as efficiently as possible. “My favourite part about coming into work each day is getting everything ready for the women. I like to anticipate what they need before they even ask.”

Champa says it feels good when people call her a hero. “My manager was the first person to call me a hero, and it felt very good. The master tailor also calls me a hero because I get everything prepared. It feels good to be called a hero.”

Champa is one of our first heroes and we couldn’t imagine Sari Bari without her… we’ve even named a bag after her! She exudes a quiet strength and joy in everything she does. We love her.

You can help us lay a foundation so more heroes like Champa can be born! We have the chance to acquire a building and transform it into a new production unit for young women who are at risk of re-entering the trade.

Visit saribari.info to find out more information about an exciting opportunity to give more women a taste of freedom.

Written by Nicole Peck

A prevention story that will melt your heart

A prevention story that will melt your heart

Eight months pregnant and desperate to make a better life for her unborn child, Sundari* was on the hunt for a job that would keep her from joining the line. 

Only a teenager, Sundari was knocking on the doors of freedom businesses, searching for any option, any hope, that would lead to a bright future for her daughter.

Sundari did find hope.

Fast forward almost 18 months, and Sundari, now 18 years old, has been working at Sari Bari for 5 months, and is in her final month of training.

When you walk through the red doors of our production unit, often the first thing you’ll see is a cute little face peering from behind one of the sewing rooms. That cute little face belongs to Sundari’s daughter, Suji*, who is exactly one year, two months and 10 days old.

“She dances a lot and claps her hands and gives a lot of joy to the room [while we all sew],” Sundari says. “She loves everyone here and has a lot of aunties, uncles and grandmothers at Sari Bari!” 

“I wanted my daughter to have a better life than I did. I grew up in a hostel, but I want to be able to move out of [the red light area] with my daughter and raise her in a different neighborhood where I’ll be able to send her to school,” she says.

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Sundari has dreams of sending Suji to an English speaking school. “However much work it takes me, I will do it so my daughter can have that kind of education. I want her to be able to study as long as she can. I want her to learn how to draw and how to dance.”

It’s taken a lot of determination for Sundari to push through challenges during her training. “When I first started training, I didn’t think I would be able to do it. My manager here at Sari Bari is my next-door neighbor, and when I saw her sewing at home, I thought I could do that too. But when I got here and started sewing, I thought I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make my lines straight,” Sundari says.

But with the help of her manager, Sundari learnt how to sew in straight lines and is now on her way towards graduation. “When I finished my first bag, I was filled with joy because I didn’t think I would be able to do it. And I couldn’t have done it without my manager’s help.”

Sundari says her favorite part about coming into work each day is sitting with the other women and telling stories. “I like that I get to come and do work while spending time with all of the other women. It makes my day pass quickly!”

India celebrated Children’s Day on November 14 – so today at Sari Bari, we’re celebrating children like Suji who have a bright future ahead because of the bravery of their mothers!

*Names have been changed

Written by Nicole Peck

That time I spent three months in Kolkata…

That time I spent three months in Kolkata…


Everything happens for a reason.

I couldn’t tell you why I decided to make the journey to India. My wife has always wanted to go, but me… not so much. Sure I enjoy the occasional curry, am pretty comfortable with a warm climate and hey, I even watch cricket. But go to India? I wasn’t convinced it was for me. Maybe it’s for those ‘hippie’ backpacker types, or the admirable men and women whom feel called to live with and serve the poor and needy.

But this year, when my wife and I set out on our ‘year of adventure’ across the globe, she snuck India onto our itinerary. And I was okay with that. In my mind, our time in India would be ‘her thing’ – her chapter of our 2015 travel story.

I guess I was wrong. It’s turned into a life-changing adventure for us both.

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We’ve just finished a three-month stint in Kolkata volunteering at Sari Bari. We helped out with whatever was needed. Some days that looked like making tags, or helping the ladies pack the beautiful products they’ve made. Other days it looked like using our professional skills in the field of media and communications, writing and digital strategy. But every day contained beautiful new experiences, and every day made us smile for a different reason.

I love the time in the morning when the ladies meet together, singing songs and starting their day in contagious joy and freedom. I love the time in the middle of the day when all that can be heard is laughter, gossip and the scraping of metal plates on the smooth concrete floor as everyone meets for lunch. I love the time in the evening when we break for ridiculously sweet tea and biscuits, and the sun begins to set behind the old cinder block buildings of our neighborhood.

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My wife and I have travelled a lot. From the Eiffel Tower to the Statue of Liberty, from cathedrals in Rome to the mosques of Istanbul. But never before have we lived anywhere foreign. We’ve toured, but never planted our roots and lived as a local… that is, until our time in India’s City of Joy. Have I missed home sometimes? Sure. But as the dawn breaks each morning in Kolkata, so too has the feeling of being at home here. I’ve felt like I belong within the Sari Bari family.

Our time in Kolkata has been amazing. A once-in-a-lifetime experience. Being here at Sari Bari has value, and we’ve see this everyday in the shining faces of the women working in their freedom. It’s been fulfilling, rewarding, challenging, character-building, sweat-inducing, soul-uplifting work. And I’d do it all again.

Everything happens for a reason, and I’m glad this experience has happened to me.

Written by Jonathan Peck