July 23, 2019

Guest Blog: Stephanie Ford’s Willow Journey

At the end of June, Willow partnered with Women of the Channel for The Compassionate Women Tour. Through Mitel Serves, Stephanie Ford (Mitel’s Regional VP of Enterprise Sales) traveled to Uganda to lead workshops for Willow participants, and to experience what it means to be part of the Willow family. Below is her daily journey with Willow.

Day 1:

After 5 months of planning, preparing, shots for Typhoid and Yellow Fever, I embarked on my 21-hour journey to the Pearl of Africa, Uganda. I am going to Kampala, right on Lake Victoria. The flight was long, through Amsterdam, and I arrived in pitch blackness at 11PM into Entebbe to a furious thunderstorm.  Nelson, head of HR at Willow, met me at the airport, and made sure my arrival to the hotel was safe, and I was all tucked in. I would come to find out Nelson is a caregiver as he is with us every day. The sights and sounds as I left the airport were new ones, the smell of coal fires for cooking fills the air, motorbikes (boda boda) speeding up the road. I have traveled extensively in North America, Europe and Asia, this is my first journey into Africa. Once settling in, and a quick text to my family, I finally fell asleep to the sound of the raging storm outside…Welcome to Uganda.

Day 2:

Today we got a lot in for Day 2 with 4 hours of sleep. After meeting with my travel companions for breakfast (passing monkeys on the way), we were off to the main offices. I met the Willow leads (program managers, counselors, house managers, nannies, legal—all here in Kampala to keep the organization moving and growing as the need is so great here). They are an incredible group of warrior women with a mission to not only protect these girls and women from trafficking, but also to work within the system to change the processes that allow for this to continue. A multi-pronged approach, and a true exercise in collaboration. After an AM meeting, and daily affirmations conducted with beautiful voices, hands clapping, and much energy, I got a tour of the main office. An old 2 story home behind walls, but close to the main street. Mama Kelsey is the heart and central nervous system of this organization, and her humble and quiet power centralizes the team. After a wonderful lunch by one of the chefs from the Houses – we set out on the bumpy dirt roads until we came to House 2. The women have been preparing for my arrival, all dressed in their best, smiles, and hugs as we stepped out the car, each one anxious for a hug and welcome. After intros and a chance to see some of the projects they were working on, rugs and bags, we did a tour of the house, each proud to show off their personal space. Stacey* a young girl with a sparkle in her smile and long willowy limbs moved us through the house cracking jokes and sharing stories. I will be back in 2 days for my session.

Second visit was House 1. It caught me off guard as they were all young, around my daughters age. They too had been preparing for my arrival, rooms clean, their best dresses on, and a shy hello and hug as we entered. They warmed up quickly, and were soon playing games and laughing. Young Evelyn* slipped her hand into mine for the tour, anxious to share her room and stuffed animal with me. I appreciate the house manager, Emily’s, love and guiding hand. Amazing how resilient children are, and how amazing that they have this haven now to be children and young teenagers. Again, they circle Kelsey with excitement and adoration. Hugging children, holding babies, she too is touring this facility for the first time as Willow is growing so quickly, they needed this new space.

Day 3:

Today we were off to iSanctuary. They are in partnership with Willow and provide jobs and training for those women who are now out of the program and working and thriving on their own. You can see the beautiful work they do on purposejewelry.org. This one Uganda team breaks sales records in the US – women after my own heart for sure.

Getting there in itself was an adventure. The no entry sign, a suggestion only, did not stop the team as we powered through back streets of red clay. The power has been out for this part of the city for a little bit now, so we set up the laptop outside in the garden and we were off and running. Luckily, I had a full charge. The topic of how to balance work and personal life is universal, and impacts all women who work, juggle husbands, kids and family. They were at first reluctant to engage in the first activity we planned, but I saw one young lady scribbling away at her task, and I had brought friendship bracelets to hand out…First one offered, and hands were up, looking to participate, and they were an active group for the next 4 hours. We talked about balance, prioritization and self-care. They had some very tough questions of me regarding making hard choices. One commented that if she can survive what she has been through, then she can make it through tough choices. We broke for lunch, and then commenced with a group discussion, the women sharing what they liked about themselves, and others in the group, and then working on an activity plan to help them manage day to day. They were open and generous with their response on what they learned from the session—how to support one another, how to put themselves and their children first, how to find something worthy in themselves, and that they are not unlike me, a woman who continues to work on this task. They loved the fact that in Georgia, I as well struggle with red clay, and the story of my dog running through the house, getting footprints everywhere, they were in awe. “Really?? We thought everything was so clean and paved.” Nope, even that we have in common. I left them with the reminder that this day will pass and the excitement will fade away, and they will have an issue, or will have lost the confidence we seem to instill in them today—and when that happens, I always resort to the Wonder Woman pose. When I left, they all stood together, hands on hips,  20+ Wonder Women.

Day 4:

Today we started our day at the most sensitive house, House 3. These girls are in a fragile state, just transitioning, and traumatized. It is a beautiful home in the hills, large, as they all need space to grieve and repair. Each house has a security team, so access is impossible unless Willow approved. There are 2 girls here who have been gone 6 years, and just made their way home from Asia, both now with babies themselves.  We did yoga together, some joined in, others preferred to stay to themselves. When we were done there, back off to House 2 which I visited on the first day…I was late and they were all waiting at the gate (also behind walls) and ready to go with the session today. Like yesterday, they are hungry for information, and guidance, and fascinated by stories of my life and family. They loved an exercise I do with balloons, blowing them up with questions about what creates pressure in our lives, and then letting them go. They are all engaged, and when asked for responses, hands shoot up in the air. I understand that there is one of them who has not spoken since she got there, and never smiles. She puts up her hand to answer one of my questions and was responding to the activities I presented. There are a few from House 3 that have come, and while no English, there was one young girl first to share some information. So brave, and heartbreaking, and I wish I had more to give them. Another one, Stacey*, was sent to Middle East, and it took her so long to get back home. Her experience haunts me, and when I commented on mentoring, she took to that immediately.

After that, and another very bumpy ride, we are back at House 1 – home of the children where we painted a tree with our hands. The youngest were just getting home from school—crisp uniforms, backpacks full, and all getting hugs from everyone. Only one day left. It has gone by so quick. I have chosen to focus on the positive here, as the list is long, but always front of mind is the atrocities these girls and young women have faced. The darkest part of humanity they have been victims of, and the hope that Willow provides can’t really be described here in words.

Day 5:

Today we started the day visiting women who have now graduated the program and are running their own businesses! Amazing what they have overcome to get to this place. We headed into the city, and into the fashion district. Now there are no lights, no stop signs, motorbikes (bodas) carrying people everywhere, driving on left side of the road, pedestrians crossing in front of you…Our driver all week, Ronald, powers through like he is taking a drive in the park.  We have to get out and walk a few blocks into the heart of the fashion district where Janie* now runs a fashion design center, and dreams of becoming a one-name designer like Versace.  She is so proud of her space, and the fact she now has 3 machines. She is happy and doing very well. Next stop is Arlene*. She has just moved into a space and started a beauty shop specializing in plaits and weaves. She too is happy to show us her knew space, and her small room in the back that she now calls home. Third stop is a little harder as you can tell Gia* is still adjusting to being on her own—separated from the child she has sent back to her village. She is trying to build something for the both of them. I realized that it must be really hard to leave the safety of where she has been with Willow, the sisters she now has, and the love from the family she has come to know in order to start her own business.  After a little guidance and encouragement, she was feeling better before we left.  We seem to get quite a bit of attention as people were fascinated she had “white people” in her shop! She called later to tell us she had a client come by, and that made her (and all of us)  feel better.

Tonight, our final night with the girls, all houses came together for a traditional bonfire, storytelling, and dancing. A lot of singing and laughter. The children’s house had been working on a song and dance that was called “I’m Still Here.” Great food was prepared—cabbage, rice, goat, chicken, fried bananas, and bread that is like a naan or roti (which I helped make).  Up north, near Gulu, there is a tribe called the Acholi where many of the security team as well as some of the cases workers are from. This is a warrior tribe.  They shared their traditional dance, people in a chain around the entire bonfire, clapping, singing….Amazing. This is the first time I have seen all the security team in one place since they are a quiet force at each house, protecting access to the girls and women.  The women brought the items they have been working on, and set up a small shop, and could clearly see me coming.  It was hard to say goodbye to all these girls and women. They all wanted to know when I can come back, and when will they see me again. Their love of “Mama Kelsey” and what she has done for them is overwhelming.


My Thoughts:

Human trafficking, to see it firsthand, is unspeakable, and the work is never-ending. The work being done here in the court systems is critical as they must get these traffickers sentenced and imprisoned which helps set precedence. On the other hand, those who work in the system must see these children and women for what they are, victims, and not criminals. I learned later in the week that one of the House Mothers herself was a victim of sex trafficking, spending 5 years in jail in Asia before making it back home to Uganda, and to Willow. Children as young as 3 have come into the program after being rescued from sex trafficking. I saw the newest of the girls at the bonfire. She was silent, staring down, unable to speak, unable to engage. Visibly, heartbreakingly broken. I am told they all come in just like that. Some do not even know their names when they come into the protection of Willow. Amazing to see the progress in these women if that is the starting point.

Just this week alone, there was always something being addressed and managed, squeezing 36 hours into a 24-hour window.  Three girls were found in Oman, very sick, and need to get back here to Uganda; meetings with the Trafficking Institute; meetings with members of the government as there is a trafficker here in jail waiting for trial, and the case needs to be government-funded to get underway. There was a group in from Kenya who wants to see the good work Willow is doing. A law student from Pepperdine is here working with Willow to support their initiatives. It truly takes a village. There were so many tragic stories shared this week, and while this visit was about support, hope, future, and love –the history that brought them to this place is very close to the surface and would be difficult to put into words.

I mentioned Day 1 that this is a group of Warrior Women, and men, and now I know them, and want to thank them—Emily, Milly, Joy, JR, Flavia, Lillian, Esther, Maria, Martha, Joylyn, Amber, Nelson from HR, Joseph (Head of Security who taught me the Ugandan handshake), the Nannies who care for the babies of these girls (some babies themselves), Quinn who documented this journey in pictures for us. Also, my travel partner who has been with me all week training the team, while I work with the houses, Sara Truebridge. She does amazing work in the area of resilience and is a specialist in education and research.  While I worked with the women and girls here, she spent hours with the Managers and Counselors. Her guidance and insights were so helpful for me on this trip. Most of all Kelsey and Meagan who have guided me the last 5 months, and have been my companions here day and night. Kelsey tells her team that they must be humble. She lives this and leads by example. Her relentless drive to bring labor and sex trafficking to the forefront, the love she has for these girls and women, her adventurous spirit I so respect and admire.

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