Choices -- Thought provoking insights from guest poster, Claire McKee, Samford University student about her recent visit to Freeset Headquarters in Kolkata, India.

September 09, 2016

Dear Reader,

This is a long post, for which I apologize. I vowed to myself when I started this blog a couple of years ago that I would keep my posts short and sweet. However, the more separate stories I wrote while in India, the more I noticed that they all echoed the same message about choices. So I tried my best to listen to the words and stories God wanted me to tell you and to compile them here. Enjoy.

Infinite Xs and Os,
Claire

CHOICES 
I love my house. I always have. It's a khaki-colored Craftsman, nestled on a back road in downtown Madison, overlooking Mrs. LouAnn's pond. Over the years, my parents have added their special touches, giving it even more beautiful character. My mom has worked hard planning and planting enchanting gardens that anchor good ole 153 Maple (which our newest dog, Scout, thinks is pretty enchantingly fun to destroy). My dad picked out long, black hurricane shutters that add a sense of beachy security and stability to the place. The large, chunky, front-porch lanterns send a welcoming glow of hello, and the wide front porch swing says, "Come on over here and stay awhile." And no matter where I roam from home, I have a small, metal reminder that jingles on my key chain, whispering that no matter what happens, or how far away I go, I always have a choice to return to this safe, beautiful place.

That place where I sleep in until 10:00 on Saturdays, wake up, throw off my fluffy, warm comforter, and shiver as my feet hit the cold, wood floor. Then I take off, doing the same jump-hop down the stairs I've practiced since I was 6, and swing open the front door to find Tom McKee on his fourth-ish cup of coffee, sitting in a front porch rocker, reading the "paper" on his iPad. He looks up with, "Hey, girl!" and pats the rocker beside him, inviting me to tell him about the highs and lows of everything recent.

That place where I head out for a run, come back, grab a water and crash into one of the leather chairs in my parents' room, underneath the ceiling fan, which I have deemed, after extensive research, the coolest possible place in the house. And every time, my mother walks in, asking me questions I don't have the lung air to respond to quite yet, almost like a dental hygienist asking what your future plans are while she holds a metal toothbrush in your mouth.

That place where I'm just about to catch some shut eye when I see my door crack open with all sorts of light rays coming in, only to see Abbie's grinning face appear in the door crack, waiting on me to say, "Come on in." However, she has never given me the chance, and runs and jumps into my bed to tell me all that's happened in her day.

That place where I promised at age nine I would be the next top baker of the world, as I continued to wreck the kitchen that was my paradise, always doing something like leaving the flour out of the brownies.

So I love that place, that house, as I'm guessing you love yours. Houses hold our memories, dreams, and lessons captive, reminding us that they are the buildings on the Earth that have done the most for us. I don't feel that I have ever taken the shelter my parents give me for granted. I never say anything I don't like about my house, and I remind my parents often of how much I love it; I try to say thank you for everything I've been given. I knew India would probably make me more appreciative for what I have, but I didn't think I'd really be shocked by anything. I've seen poverty throughout my life. My parents have been involved in areas of town people don't dare to go; I'm so glad they drug me along, too, because it kept my head and heart humble. Because of my going to these places, I don't live in a middle class, first world country fairy tale where I ignorantly believe my life is all there is to know. But I do think God laughed at me when I thought I knew the worst poverty could show off.

INDIA 

I sat on a school bus in a pool of my own sweat to go pick kids up from the Kolkata trash dump. I actually thought I heard the man incorrectly when he told us "the dump" is where we were picking up the children, but sure enough, we rounded a corner of typical housing and businesses to see a massive trash dump. The bus pulled over, and I watched in utter disbelief as a small boy jumped on the bus exclaiming, "Good Morning!" (in English, mind you) and opened up about half a sandwich bag of dry coffee creamer--his breakfast. I looked at my friend Alyssa's face, which I'm guessing looked the same as mine. We talked about the incident later, and 'Lyss brought up the fact to me that often during the week when we're at school in Birmingham, we go to Target with our other roommate, Abby, and stare at the fridge full of over 15 different choices of coffee creamers. We always joke about getting some ridiculous flavor like Birthday Cake Ice Cream Dreamsickle, but Hazelnut is usually the lucky winner we throw in the cart. You see, I choose everything.

I choose not to eat dry coffee creamer for breakfast. I choose what college I attend. I choose where I will live at college. I choose what I will study there. I choose whether I will throw on a t-shirt and Chacos or dress up for class. I choose what I eat for lunch. I choose my friends. I choose my boyfriend. I choose if I will grab Starbucks or Juice Bar for a pick-me-up; I choose my job; I choose EVERYTHING. But the snake that is poverty has a funny way of wrapping around and around as it gets worse and worse until it is so restrictive and choking to a person that they can't move. They can't choose anything. They get what poverty allows them to barely grasp and they take it.

Another thing I knew about India was that I would be meeting women who had recently left the sex trade, and I would be experiencing an organization that then provided them with good jobs. I didn't know how I would be with this; I just prayed for strength and love.

I didn't have a mere thought of what was coming.

FREESET

We arrived at what looked like every other city street in India, and went into a four-story building to meet the man and woman who started the organization Freeset. We sat down with coffees and teas in big comfy chairs in a cool room, and as I began to get about the most comfortable I had been in India, my heart began to grow more and more uncomfortable as I listened to the words the founders began to say. Less than a mile from where we sat was one of the largest red light districts in the world. My selfish, worst-case-scenario thought was that maybe I should send Tom McKee a dropped pin just in case an incident from the movie Taken began to play out. I felt unsafe and I couldn't believe we were so close to "The Line," what the Indian people call the district. However, the founders explained to us that in order to reach the most women possible, they needed to put their organization in the dead center of it all. They needed to be these women's neighbors and friends, and hopefully, one day, their work managers. The hairs stood up on my arms as they told us that the building where we were sitting had been used by the Sonagachi (the people who keep the red light district going) for all sorts of evil. When Freeset began remodeling the space, they even found an illegal abortion clinic behind a wall. I got that horrible, raw, stinging feeling in the back of my throat and in my nose as I tried to hold back tears. Tears came anyway. And just when I thought my heart had been pricked and prodded and stabbed enough with upsetting emotion I could not control--Nina walked in.

Nina looked like a sweet, southern grandma who used too much butter in her recipes, except she was Indian. She had this certain toughness about her. Maybe it was her tone or the way she held herself. I couldn't understand a word she said because she only spoke Bengali, so one of the founders translated her story for us. I think this made it worse, too, because I watched Nina struggle through a few Benglai words, trying to fight the tears, and I desperately wondered what she had just said, trying to come up with maybe what it was in my head before the man translated it. And every single time, what the man translated for us was so much worse than what I had guessed. I want to share Nina's story with you, and I only pray that I do her the justice she has deserved for a very long time.

Nina was born in Pakistan which went through a civil war when she was a child and split. The area she is from is Bangladesh today. She and her family were placed in a refugee camp during the war. While in the camp, a woman befriended Nina and offered her a job as a maid in India. With her family already in poverty, they decided this was the best decision for her future. Nina told us that she has forgotten most of the trip from the refugee camp to India. However, she recalls that when she arrived in Kolkata, she was given a Coca Cola. Nina, being a small-village girl, had never had a Coke before, and therefore did not notice that it probably tasted funny because it was heavily drugged. The next morning she woke up in a room with two men she had never seen. She quickly realized that within 24 hours, she had gone from a refugee camp survivor to the newest addition to one of the largest red light districts in the world. For the next many years Nina would live on The Line and would eventually become an alcoholic to try to numb the pain that was her life.

When Freeset was introduced to Nina, she took the chance and got a job there. She was one of the first 20 women who chose to work for Freeset and come off The Line. Now she is one of their managers and is involved in the planning of new locations for the organization. She returned to Bangladesh to try and find her family once she was safe in Freeset, but found that by the time she returned, they had all passed away. Not only did Satan take most everything from her, but he also took her time with her family. For women like Nina, poverty doesn't give them a choice. Poverty tells them that to provide for themselves, for their families, they can't move from where they are. But God speaks freedom in choice.

NOW

So what can we do? Well, for starters, Freeset needs more business from the United States. Whether it is birthday or Christmas presents, or your company or sorority is ordering tshirts, log on to freesetusa.com to give more women the decision to choose true life. The more we buy, the more freedom can be given.

I pray that my words touched you in some way. If you can take some piece of what I took from India--take this. You and I, we get to choose. What will you do with your choices? Will you use them for good? We get to choose most everything. We weren't given that right for nothing. No, you and I were trusted with the freedom of choice so that we would make the right ones. Choose good. Choose freedom. Live a life you and God are gonna be really proud to look back on someday.




Also in Blog

Freeset's Phillipa Rea featured in Huffington Post

July 13, 2016

In 2015, CLF began to explore suitable community projects and, Michelle Pratt (CLF Founder/Director), Nik Webb-Shephard (Child Labor Free CEO) and I were connected with fellow New Zealander, Phillipa Rea of Freeset. Freeset is a social enterprise, based in Kolkata’s Sonagacchi district, which aims to free local women from the sex industry by providing them with the opportunity to learn new skills and earn a decent wage by creating fair trade, organic goods.

The Freeset factory also provides a social network for the women working in the factory and provides health, financial, counseling, housing and education support. The three of us visited Kolkata in March 2016, to conduct a site visit to further scope out potential projects. During this visit, we met with many of the women working in the factory. Hearing the stories of these women, who have left the sex industry to better support their children and families - and also to better care for themselves - you cannot help but feel pain for those who have never had a choice. It is in these moments you know you have to be a part of the change too.

Continue Reading →

A Means to an End.
A Means to an End.

April 28, 2016

Seam by seam... sale by sale... each one is significant because of what these collective movements enable.

As we launch this new website, for us, it's a fresh face for our visitors to meet our Freeset family and to hear our stories; the diligent staff who give their most precious asset everyday - time - to secure sales, move the carefully crafted products from one geography to another, massage our online presence, and of course, greet and share our mission with those who will listen. 

Continue Reading →

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