ST. LOUIS – Dawn Manske can still remember the images clearly.
Years ago, she watched a video as a graduate student. It showed an undercover reporter looking for young girls in Cambodia for sex.
“I can see that little girl's face,” Manske said. “It was horrible. You see this video and they usher in these girls. The youngest young looked like she was seven.”
For years, it weighed on Manske’s heart.
“I saw this and I thought, how is it that we have men that want this? That we have little girls who are growing up like this.”
Manske was sure she wanted to do something to help, but did not know exactly how. A few years later, she received two wedding gifts that would spark an idea. Dawn’s fiancé gave her sandals, handmade by women in Uganda in order to earn money for school. Then, a good friend gave her pants made in Thailand. The idea for Dawn’s company Made For Freedom was born. The company’s tagline is “fight human trafficking with style”.
“This is when I was introduced to social enterprise, this concept of using business to really help people,” she said.
Dawn partners with centers across the world that provide employment for women, many who have been rescued from sex trafficking.
“This is a horrible, ugly thing that is growing and it continues to spread and it continues to get worse,” Manske said.
The women in the centers make clothes, handbags, jewelry and other accessories. Dawn sells the products on her website, in a handful of boutiques and at fairs. Many of the items come with tags that tell a story of a woman who made the item. A leather bracelet, for example, tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who was rescued from sex trafficking in China.
Manske’s mission is to help promote employment for the women. So far, Made For Freedom has provided 12,000 hours of employment.
"They can come into the centers and be provided with counseling and education and they can create beautiful things and work with their hands,” Manske said.
Another goal of Manske’s: educating others about sex trafficking and the small ways people can make a difference. Worldwide, it is a $99 billion industry, and it happens in the St. Louis area.
"You have a lot of things that create the perfect storm," said Lindsey Ellis, the executive director of The Covering House, a St. Louis organization that helps in the recovery of girls who have been victims of sex trafficking.
Ellis said our area is a hotspot for the sex trafficking due partly to our location and the population of the kids here.
"We have so many interstates, highways, that make it so easy to run back and forth out of St. Louis," Ellis said. "Anytime you have high dropout rates, high runaway rates, throwaway kid rates, all of those things can contribute to that."
Made For Freedom is growing. Manske just raised $25,000 through Kiva. The website is similar to GoFundMe, but instead of giving money, people loan money to companies like Dawn’s. She is overwhelmed by the support, especially since running a business was never in her plans.
“They have a lot of hope in what I'm doing,” Manske said. “I have two degrees in education and one in theology. Notice the lack of business.”
And, Mankse is determined to make her business grow. It was a business born out of a desire to help others that is fueled by hope.
“To not do something, I wouldn't be able to do that,” Manske said. “I see what they've been through and I see how it's changed their lives and that keeps me going.”
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