478 girls. Thousands of kilos of beads. It all started 10 years ago. Today.
Her name was Runa* and she was 11 years old. Her pudgy hands, braids with blue ribbons, and small stature reminded me she was a child. But, in so many other ways she was already an adult: she was nursing a 6-month-old son, fighting a difficult court case against her rapist, and helping me teach other girls in our jewelry workshop. She was straddling two worlds, child and adult, “rebellious” daughter and loving mother; yet, she belonged to neither. Stigma meant she had no community. I remember the feelings welling inside me as I met her: the knots in my stomach as I thought about all she was up against and the fluttering and warmth in my chest as I realized all she had overcome and who she was.
She was quiet, deliberate, and focused. I could see it as she created jewelry. She methodically selected her colors — she loved light pinks and browns — and carefully strung each bead. She was kind, and loving to her son, looking after his needs before her own. She wanted so much for him. She was soft but stern with other girls in the workshop, making sure they accounted for every single bead and made the most of our time together. And, she loved to cook. She would beam as she showed me the bread she had made that morning before our workshops. Her dream was to open her own bakery one day; and, I promised her that I would support her in getting there.
Fast forward. After leaving our programs, she did it. She is 21 now and, with more than $4,000 saved through Emerge, she was able build a small house and open a shop next door with sweetmeats. On my last trip to Sri Lanka she came to visit me with her husband and share her success. We hugged and laughed and cried. Our bond was the same as it was years before. That’s one of the many special things about what we’ve built at Emerge Global. We are family. She will always be my little sister, my ‘nangi.’ I reminded her how strong she is, how proud I am of her, and how much I love her. Before she left, she ran back to blow me a kiss just like she used to when she lived at the shelter. “Umma!” (“kiss!”).
Emerge is about celebrating and cultivating each girl’s resiliency and partnering with them to build the skills needed for self-sufficiency. It’s about moving forward and giving the girls the foundation they need to reach their goals. We don’t decide what those goals are. We make sure that they can get there. Just like Runa did.
Emerge is about Runa. Everything we do is for her… and, for every single girl we work with. Each one. Rushika. Chathu. Lilamani. Every single girl.
When I started, I couldn’t imagine what we would build. I thought it was me and 18 girls for a summer college project. I couldn’t imagine the wonderful team we would recruit, the endorsements we would gain, the way the community would eventually embrace our work and our alumnae. Runa may have been straddling two worlds before, unable to exist in one. But, together, we are building one where she can not only exist, but thrive.
A huge thank you to the countless people who have made Runa’s story and many others possible. Every word of encouragement, every dollar and bead donated, every necklace purchased, and every volunteer hour invested has pushed us forward. An even bigger thank you to the team who has worked day and night (quite literally) to serve these courageous young women. You all have been a joy to work with and have brought so many dreams to reality. I’m sharing one of our team photos here, though I wish I had one that captured all team members over the years. You all are incredible.
It’s been a magical 10 years and I cannot wait to see how the next 10 unfold. Emerge Love to you all!
*I have changed her name to protect her confidentiality