Thanks to a program started by MIT sophomore Alia Whitney-Johnson, 18 Sri Lankan child-mothers living in a home for victims of rape or incest are coming out of their shells and earning money for their futures through art.
In the summer of 2005, Whitney-Johnson traveled to Sri Lanka on a fellowship through the MIT Public Service Center (PSC) to assist in tsunami-related relief efforts. While there, she volunteered to write a fund-raising letter for Ma-Sevana -- a home for 22 girls, ages 10 to 18, who had become mothers through rape or incest.
Whitney-Johnson wanted to do more for the girls than just write a fund-raising letter. "Everything about their experience that had brought them to Ma-Sevana had been about distance: psychological and physical distance from their family and friends, distance from their education ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ and perhaps the saddest of all, distance from their own childhood," said Whitney-Johnson. She wanted to find a way to get closer.
An avid jewelry-maker, Whitney-Johnson decided to share her personal passion, hosting workshops and teaching the girls, through a translator, to use multicolored beads to make earrings and bracelets. Eventually, there was no need for translation, said Whitney-Johnson, who watched the girls light up as they worked.
Whitney-Johnson realized that the jewelry might serve a function beyond art therapy -- both as "a lasting skill for the future, and providing a method of income generation," she said.
Back at MIT for the fall semester, Whitney-Johnson applied for and received a fellowship from the PSC to return to Sri Lanka during the January 2006 Independent Activities Period (IAP).
She named her project Emerge for the qualities -- "self-respect, creativity, confidence, a willingness to try something new, independence, collaboration, imagination, organization, hope and autonomy" -- she saw developing in the girls.
Whitney-Johnson sought sponsors who were willing to make a $200 per year commitment to the girls. Every three months, sponsors send $50 worth of beads to the girls, who in turn create a portfolio of photographs of their five best pieces.
"The portfolio will enable the sponsor to see how the beads were used, get ideas for future supplies the girl may enjoy, and enable the sponsor to watch as the artist's style develops," said Whitney-Johnson.
Whitney-Johnson applied for an importer's license so she can bring the girls' work into the United States to be sold at crafts fairs and shows. Additionally, the children's work will be sold in stores in Sri Lanka, particularly in stores that cater to tourists.
"All profits will be reinvested in the program itself, donated toward services to run the home, or deposited in the artist's bank account for her withdrawal upon departure of Ma-Sevana at the age of 18," said Whitney-Johnson.
The story of one 16-year-old girl she met over IAP embodies what Whitney-Johnson hopes to accomplish with Emerge.
"She was the face that greeted me behind that chain-linked fence every morning when I arrived," said Whitney-Johnson. The girl was more reserved and isolated than some of the others. "To my amazement, after the first day of my workshops, she was the face that not only greeted me, but greeted me enthusiastically every morning," Whitney-Johnson said.
That transformation is what Whitney-Johnson hopes will happen for all the girls in Emerge.
"The term victim describes someone who is passive," Whitney-Johnson said. "She proved to me that even the most abused can be active and that we all will go to tremendous lengths to pursue something we find beautiful. Together, we both became stronger and were able to build something that wasn't there before: a program that would create and sustain itself through all of our inevitable search for beauty."
For further information or to sponsor a girl or donate money to Emerge, please contact Alia Whitney-Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make a donation without becoming a sponsor, please make checks payable to Emerge and leave at the MIT Public Service Center (Room 4-104), or contact Whitney-Johnson.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 15, 2006 (download PDF).