Rethreading lives from India to Jacksonville
Deep within the Indian city of Kolkata lies Sonagachi, one of Asia’s largest red-light districts. Sonagachi is impoverished, overcrowded and filthy. Brothels line the streets. There, tens of thousands of women sell their bodies every day, many of them underage girls. Many are victims of human trafficking. These women are forced into prostitution, subjected to deplorable treatment and horrific living conditions. This was the world Rethreaded founder Kristin Keen discovered when she first came to Kolkata.For five years, Keen lived in India as a missionary and worked with the women in the Sonagachi district. However, after two years of working and developing friendships within the community, she realized she wanted to do more. Keen developed a unique business plan and quickly put it into action. “We ended up starting a business to give these women a way out,” Keen said. The result was Keen’s first business Sari Bari, which she co-founded with her friend Sarah Lance in 2006.
Yet, after launching Sari Bari, Keen knew she wasn’t finished quite yet. She said, “When I got back to the States, I had learned about the power of business in a woman’s life. And when I came back from [India], I started to go visit on Phillips Highway, meet women who were in the same [situation] here. I ended up starting a business here to help women in our own city.”
So Keen created Rethreaded in July 2012. The business model for Rethreaded is much like that of Sari Bari. According to the company’s website, “Rethreaded is a social entrepreneurship that is breaking the cycle of the sex trade by offering viable and creative work to those affected by the sex trade, i.e. human trafficking prostitution, drug addiction, pornography and strip clubs.”
All the company’s employees have been victims trapped in the “cycle” of the sex trade, violence and addiction, and needed help building a better life. While working for Rethreaded, they learn how to sew and make items like Threads for Hope bracelets and Grace Scarves. All the products are handmade, which are then sold online through their website, as well as in their Jacksonville shop.
“A woman needs to be clean and sober for six months before they can come work here,” Keen said. “And we’re the job piece. A woman goes through three months of training where they learn to sew scarves or whatever we’re doing here. And when after training’s over, they’re employed.”
Rethreaded became well-known after winning One Spark, the world’s crowdfunding festival. Keen said Rethreaded was awarded almost $7,000 after winning One Spark 2013. When she found out her organization was number one, Keen described the whole experience as “magical.”
“Saturday morning of One Spark, it was rainy and cold,” Keen said. “And we were in Hemming Plaza and they announced the top ten. They got to number eight and we were like, ‘Aw, well, we didn’t make top ten.’ And they put up on the screen ‘Rethreaded’ and it was number one. So we jumped up and down and screamed like little girls. It was amazing because it was so unexpected.”
Keen said Rethreaded is always looking for volunteers and UNF students can get involved in a variety of ways. She said they have Volunteer Tuesdays from 1-5 p.m. at their store.
According to Keen, Rethreaded already works with the UNF Women in Business club and the UNF Enactus club, but she would like to get involved with more organizations on campus. Keen said, “Statistically, 75-90 percent of women who were in the sex trade were abused as children. In college, students who have suffered abuse should bring it out into the light and talk about it. You don’t have to carry it by yourself.”
UNF senior Maddie Burk, a member of Enactus club, has been working with Rethreaded since last fall. She said she saw them at the One Spark 2013 and knew she wanted to work with them.
“I feel like human trafficking is a huge problem that people don’t realize,” Burk said. “It’s a very serious problem and it’s in our own backyard here in Jacksonville. I think with Rethreaded, gives light to this problem, gives it a softer feel and it relates to more people.”
Burk explained how Enactus aided Rethreaded in building up Rethreaded’s Jacksonville store, which has aided in the expansion of the brand. Enactus has also advised the company in other affairs of business, such as marketing and design.
When thinking about the future of Rethreaded, Burk said, “I think it’s just beginning…it doesn’t have any limits.”
But it wasn’t all work for Burk. While she was there, she viewed a candlelight service held by Rethreaded employees. Burk said, “Before their meetings, they light a candle in remembrance of what they have accomplished. It is a reflection on where they are and where they are going. And that spoke to me, [the message] that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Reminding women of that message is essentially what Rethreaded is all about. Keen shared a story of one individual that reflects this. A woman Keen said they hired too soon worked with Rethreaded for a month. After a while, the woman went back to her former work at strip clubs, but messaged Keen on Facebook a few months later about her time at the organization. “Even though I was only there for a month, never doubt the power of Rethreaded,” she wrote. “For the first time in my life, I got a glimpse of who I could be.”
Rethreaded is a faith-based organization, and states on their website that they believe, “God is the purest source of Love. We seek to love others like God has loved us…. We trust that love can guide our business and help us overcome anything that comes our way.”
Gallery photos by Ashton Elder and Erica Santillo