Janell and young people at risk of forced prostitution did art projects together in one of Kolkata's red light districts.
About three years ago, I was weeks away from giving birth to my fifth child. I was in the trenches of raising a family, maintaining a healthy marriage, and volunteering in my quaint Cape Cod community. Five humans under 8 years old counted on me to feed them, dress them, give them shelter, shuffle them off to school, and coach their little league teams. This was the most serious business in the world. And I was up to my eyeballs in it.
One Sunday morning, quite by accident, I heard a lecture about human trafficking. Sarah Symons, founder of The Emancipation Network (TEN), described beautiful, peaceful women and children forced into slavery, taken from their homes, and promised a better life, only to be trapped in labor and prostitution, under the threat of violence and without pay or access to the most basic needs in horrific, inhumane conditions.
Ouch. This was news to me. But I couldn't stop. There were naps and baths and cupcakes and carpools calling. I left the event feeling bad but not heartbroken and filed the discussion under "sad." You know, in a grateful-for-what-we-have kind of way.
About one year later, I watched the documentary titled Born into Brothels. I looked into the big, beautiful, brown eyes of the children it chronicled, and the world as I knew it was turned upside down. They were my children.
While physically worlds apart, I could not find one difference between my five babies who slept soundly upstairs and the innocent faces that captured my heart on the screen. Their smiles, their joy, their grief, their spirit, was the exact same. They called me. I wanted out of my comforts. I wanted to crawl off of my jumbo couch in our cozy family room, into my oversize television and lay next to them in the red light districts of Kolkata, India.
And six months later, that's what I did.
Holding my breath, I gathered myself as our group of TEN volunteers arrived in Kolkata at the first shelter on our agenda, one that cared for survivors of sex slavery. Scores of girls squealed "Auntie! Auntie!" as we tentatively approached. I was swallowed in to their love. Within minutes, they gave me a goddess name: Saraswati!
They effortlessly covered my drab, everyday American T-shirt and yoga pants with a handmade golden sari. They sang and pulled us along by the hand. They danced and encouraged us to join. They painted nails, showed off trinkets, and giggled while playing duck, duck, goose; jump rope; and tag.
I knew it! Love, attention, laughter, play, sharing – these are the ways of the children of the world. Over the course of two weeks, we planned art projects, we shared meals, we learned traditional Hindu dance, we held hands, we painted murals, we stumbled over and around the language barrier, and somewhere in between wild adoration and harsh realities, we found hope. These girls were safe, but millions of others in almost every country on the planet (including the United States) were not.
I returned home inspired. My mission was to slavery-proof the girls and women I had met in India. I encouraged my extended family, friends, and community to sponsor a child's education. I sold items from TEN's Made by Survivors product line. I spoke everywhere – churches, libraries, preschools, colleges, book clubs – to anyone who would listen, anyone who wouldn't turn away. I collected 10,000 redeemable bottles and cans.
I couldn't have done it without my family. My parents and in-laws knew I needed to touch this cause firsthand, and they supported me (and probably held their breath while I was away).
My husband, Adam (who would have taken the trip with me), gave me his blessing, helped me raise funds, and took two weeks off work to be at home running the household. We have a tight-knit neighborhood and community, so people offered meals and carpools. Beautiful.
When I got back, Adam, who is a musician, organized a freedom festival to benefit TEN. It's a beautiful outdoor summer concert with several bands and a full day of music, now two years old.
My children understand that I feel called, and they lovingly refer to the children as "the India girls" as if they are part of our family. I spoke to each of my children's classes about my trip. My older kids ran a lemonade stand and sold handicrafts. I started blogging for TEN. And somehow, in the twists and turns of life, I became a modern-day abolitionist.
I sit here now, waiting until I can return to the girls again. I dream of their sweet voices calling "Auntie! Auntie!" I hope on the lifelong journey of teaching and learning, giving and receiving, that you, too, find what sings to your soul. And that you are brave enough to listen when it calls you.
These girls were safe, but millions of others in almost every country on the planet (including the United States) were not.
About the author:
Janell Burley Hofmann '99 is the mother of five children ages 3, 4, 6, 8, and 11. She lives in Sandwich, MA. She runs empowerment workshops for girls on Cape Cod and continues to work with The Emancipation Network. More information on modern-day slavery. Follow Janell's blog.