For people trapped in the sex trafficking world, one of the most difficult issues is finding work to support them while they try to change their lives.
In Fort Worth, one of the places that seeks to help them do that is The Net, a nonprofit that works with both the homeless and those caught in human trafficking.
Melissa Ice, the founder and executive director of The Net, announced Nov. 15 that its subsidiary, The Worthy Co., is opening a brick and mortar retail site in Fort Worth to provide jobs and other opportunities for survivors of sex trafficking.
“Currently we offer these women jail advocacy, mentorship, recovery resources and have had the privilege of working with over 600 women since The Net’s inception,” Ice said.
The Worthy Co. launched in 2018 to provide these women with meaningful, safe and sustainable employment.
“The program has been incredibly successful, and we have truly seen our women thrive. That said, we feel like we are just getting started and have much in store for both the future of The Net and The Worthy Co.,” Ice said.
The Net was founded out of Christ Chapel Fort Worth’s college ministry, where Ice was a minister in 2009, as an outreach program targeting the local refugee and homeless communities.
It became an independent nonprofit in April 2013 with the goal of offering dignity and restoring relationships to people in poverty, ultimately walking alongside them as they gain independence, Ice said at a launch party held at the BRIK Venue, 501 S. Calhoun St.
Shortly after The Net gained nonprofit status, Ice became its full-time executive director and Sarah Bowden joining as full-time director of operations.
Ice announced a communitywide campaign Nov. 15 to help make The Worthy Co.’s physical store a reality. It will need $600,000 to open by fall 2019 one block north of Magnolia Avenue in the Fairmount neighborhood.
To date, the organization has raised more than $250,000 through the support of the Sapphire Foundation, the North Texas Community Foundation, TCU’s Nature of Giving class, 6th Ave Homes, Meggan and Blake Panzino and individual gifts.
The ground floor of the two-story brick building will feature The Worthy Co.’s locally made candles, apparel and jewelry, including new product lines in 2019. The back half of the first floor will provide a larger area for production space.
The Worthy Co.’s employee headquarters will be on the second floor, with operating offices for its enterprises.
The Worthy Co. now produces a variety of products, including candles, and Ice says 100 percent of the proceeds go back into the program supporting the women.
“We're doing so in a 300-square-foot church classroom that is carpeted and we pour hot wax every week and it's technically a borrowed space,” Ice said. “Ideally, we would not be doing that in a space that does not belong to us, but alas, that's where we are.
“But in the confines of that 300-square-foot space, we're actually able to produce 150-plus candles a week and our women are only working six to eight hours. What we want to do is we want to scale, and the way that we're going to do that is grow our building,” Ice said.
Also speaking at the launch was Salah Boukadoum, a co-founder of Soap Hope, a social venture that sells natural, healthful products online, then invests 100 percent of profits into anti-poverty programs for women worldwide.
“The work that The Net does is especially powerful and especially meaningful to me. The reason is, if you think about the work of a homeless shelter in the city, or the work of a food bank in the city, these are absolutely necessary things,” he said.
“But what The Net has done is so much deeper than that because they transform a life, they don't just provide one evening of solution. That is a very powerful activity to undertake and a very challenging one because it takes years to do that. It requires an incredible amount of commitment, patience, risk-taking,” Boukadoum said.
Ice quoted Simon Sinek in his book Start With Why as saying that entrepreneurs are driven by passion and are completely irrational.
“Maybe this is true,” she said. “Maybe what we're doing is a little irrational, maybe it's a little foolish. But I will tell you that our passion for doing it and the reason that we're doing it is because … we really, truly believe in a world that may not exist but is totally possible.”
Ice said she wants her daughters to “live in a city where the most vulnerable women are the most valued women.”
The women The Net works with who will be employed by The Worthy Co. all have really similar stories, she said. They were abused as children, they were on the street before their 16th birthday, they were raped, they were drugged, they were prostituted.
“What I hate about their story is that somewhere along the way, they fell through the cracks and someone's little girl became a prostitute,” Ice said. “I don't know about you, but I just believe that they're worth the risk.”
Boukadoum said he first met Ice and Bowden in the context of the Sapphire Foundation, discovering the work that The Net had done and the opportunity that The Worthy Co has going forward.
“We were, first of all, incredibly impressed by the team, by the idea, and mostly by the opportunity. There is a huge unlimited opportunity that these folks have right now,” he said.
Boukadoum said only a special kind of person undertakes something like that.
“It's also a double-edged sword because the amount of resources it takes to feed a person for a night, or for 10 nights, or 100 nights, is a totally different scale than the amount of resource that it takes to transform the life of a woman,” he said.
“We need a different way and that's why I'm so excited that Melissa and Sarah and her team discovered and then embraced this model that she called social enterprise. I call what this team is doing something a little bit different, I call it an impact organization. The key defining element of that is the way that this organization sustains itself,” Boukadoum said.