How Volunteering Helped Me Find My Path

Will I ever reach my full potential?

This was the question that used to keep me up at night, and it was especially persistent on paydays. I liked my old job, but I wasn’t passionate about it, and deep down I knew it wasn’t making the world a better place. Every time I got paid to do something that was only self-serving, I knew that I was moving further and further away from my true potential.

In 2010 it dawned on me that while I didn’t know how to reach my potential, I did know that staying put would never give me the opportunity to find it. So I quit and committed to a year of skills-based service.

In that year I volunteered with the American Cancer Society on its National Leadership Training Team, Relay For Life Advisory Team, as well as an Innovation Think Tank. I then traveled to Nepal to support the Nepal Wireless Initiative and some healthcare related initiatives using tele-health. I then relocated to Southeast Asia where I spent time with sustainable wood growers and coffee farmers in Indonesia. From there, I reconnected with my passion to fight cancer by supporting the National Cancer Society of Malaysia – an international partner of the ACS. Continuing south to New Zealand, I spent time with waste “up-cyclers” and then went to Argentina to finish my year of service with another social enterprise working to eliminate the idea of waste.


When you work for free like I did, you end up gravitating to the tasks that you love the most. Actually working on specific projects and waking up excited to do more of them, showed me what really made me come alive, more so than any aptitude test would.

When I got back, my friend showed me a quote from Howard Thurman, which now has a permanent place on my heart: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Coming Alive

When I was volunteering around the world that year, I blogged about the work I was doing. Complete strangers stumbled upon my work and started to ask me for volunteering suggestions and advice. As time went on, my humble blog amassed more followers. I started helping other people who were looking to volunteer their own skills around the world. Towards the end of my trip, I met Derk Norde, an experienced social entrepreneur who had previously founded the Business in Development Network – a foundation helping small businesses access capital.


We connected over our passion to empower small, locally-led organizations grow and make an impact. These organizations are vital to global development; they are the ones working to solve last-mile challenges and have the greatest potential to create jobs. Derk and I started to meet regularly for coffee and discuss insights and research we had collected about the best way to support these organizations. In these meetings we made a strikingly simple realization: small organizations needs expertise to grow, and people are looking to travel and volunteer their skills.

Even though our first meetings were four years ago, I vividly remember leaving those coffee chats with a strange sense of fulfillment. I realized that I had found a way to do work I loved doing, and do it for the purpose of empowering others to build a better world.


Those coffee chats turned into formal meetings, a business plan and then our own social enterprise: It’s a global platform that helps people volunteer their skills around the world for any length of time. Think of it like a short-term Peace Corps for skilled professionals. From one week to one year, we help people connect directly to field organizations overseas where they can live for free while volunteering their skills. It’s a membership community that guarantees a match to a volunteering project abroad and provides training, resources, and a facilitated planning process to help you have a trip that truly makes an impact. A small membership fee allows us to staff a global support team to help you find a project that fits your skills and passions… Our entire matching site, resources, and global team was designed to help you find your potential… to help you come alive.

When I reflect back on my entrepreneurial journey thus far, I realize that the hardest step to take was the first one: To admit that I had the potential to do more, and to start looking for ways to truly make an impact. A path appears only to those who look for it.

“He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own.”

– Confucius

About the blogger:

Mark Horoszowski is co-founder and CEO of, a global platform that connects people who want to travel and volunteer their expertise with social impact organizations around the globe. Since its launch in 2011, has already helped unleash over 1 million dollars worth of professional skills to social enterprises around the world. 

Mark holds a Master’s in Accounting and a BA in Business from the University of Washington and sits on the American Cancer Society’s Nationwide Training Team.

It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll… and Gynecologic Cancer

It wasn’t too many years ago that talking about breast cancer was uncomfortable, even taboo.  Now, nearly everyone knows pink means breast cancer prevention and manufacturers of everything from kitchen mixers to lipsticks offer “pink products.” Male professional athletes even drape themselves in pink uniforms and jerseys to raise awareness. Clearly, we’ve grown accustomed to talking about “saving the tatas.”

But, we still don’t talk much about cancers that happen “down there” despite the fact that about every seven minutes another woman is diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer and just one in three women who are diagnosed survive.

For me, the depth and immensity of the awareness challenge crystallized when I delivered a talk to about 250 OB/GYNs. I asked how many had participated or supported a run for breast cancer and nearly every hand went up. But when I asked how many were familiar with the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation (now the Foundation For Women’s Cancer), my heart broke when I only saw two hands in the air.

So how do you give voice to cancers that people are afraid to talk about? Five of my fellow gynecologic oncologists and I are using a time-honored tactic — rock and roll.

In 2008, we formed the band N.E.D., short for the best three words a patient can hear — no evidence of disease.

N.E.D. live in concert.

N.E.D. live in concert.

Two albums and a documentary film later (which will aired several times on the World Channel on March 4-7, and is scheduled many public television stations beginning in April and the Spanish-language channel VME on April  10), it’s been the musical adventure of a lifetime. Although we live in five different states (one of which is Alaska) and all have a full-time medical practice, we have made the time to record and release original music, rehearse and play live shows. Hope is a central theme of our songs, which are written to empower women and their loved ones, and motivate them to dance, smile and, most of all, break that paralyzing wall of silence that surrounds gynecologic cancers.

Short of operating on and healing someone, seeing people sing the words to our songs is the most powerful experience I’ve had. It’s a dream come true to interact with our fans (who call themselves NEDHeads) and see the raw energy and the healing and therapeutic power of live music.

Near the end of each concert, we invite gynecologic cancer survivors up on stage for the song, “Let the Singing Begin.”  Each woman gets a turn to walk on stage with a sign that says when she was diagnosed with cancer. Then, she turns the sign around to show how long she’s been disease free and what life milestone she just celebrated or is looking forward to. It’s about each woman having a chance to feel like a rock star for what they’ve accomplished. It’s about going from a dark place to a hopeful one with a camaraderie that can only come from knowing exactly how each person has suffered and overcome.

Dr. John Bogges

Dr. John Bogges

We called our second album Six Degrees, to represent both our medical degrees and that everyone, in some way, is connected to one of the five main gynecologic cancers (cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal and vulvar). In fact, gynecologic cancers kill as many patients as prostate cancer each year, yet prostate cancer receives 50 percent more federal research funds than all gynecologic cancers combined.

While there is a mammogram to test for breast cancer and a Pap smear for cervical cancer, there is no screening test for ovarian cancer, where the five-year survival rate is just 45 percent. We do know that when ovarian cancer is found and treated before it spreads outside the ovary, the five-year survival rate jumps to 92 percent. However, only 15 percent of ovarian cancers are found at this stage.

What complicates ovarian cancer diagnosis is that many of the early symptoms can often be attributed to less serious conditions like bloating, abdominal swelling, change in urinary frequency and feeling full quickly.

This ambiguity is why women should see their OBGYN if they experience a symptom or feel differently than they normally do for at least a week.

N.E.D. documentary photo

N.E.D. documentary photo

It’s why we need significantly more research dollars allocated to develop an effective screening test for ovarian cancer and monies to support other potential research breakthroughs for gynecologic cancers.

Raising awareness is the first step to making this happen. That’s why my focus, and that of the band, patients, survivors and advocates, is to bring a voice to gynecologic cancers.

Sometimes it’s easier to sing about something than to talk about it.

But whether it’s at a concert, a doctor’s office, the water cooler or a fundraiser, it’s a conversation that can’t wait any longer.

About the blogger:

John Boggess, MD, is a gynecologic oncology surgeon and professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Click here to view the trailer.

Making Way for Local Efforts

Many of the great experiences in my life have seemingly happened by accident, but my foray into humanitarianism was serendipitous, or dare I say, some kind of divine guidance. Now that you are done rolling your eyes, let me explain. I was neither led to humanitarian work through academia nor the preoccupation of religiousness. To be honest, I am a high school dropout and I had severed my ties to the church at a young age. Prior to meeting Madam Rea Dol from SOPUDEP eight years ago, the conceptualization of extreme poverty and the need to find a way to offer myself up as support to quell this problem, was not even a blip on my proverbial radar.

The events that led me to be an advocate and supporter of grassroots organizations in Haiti, and around the world, are still hazy. I am certified ADD. Many things that come across my plate seem extremely important for a short amount of time, but quickly fade into a new preconceived fad. So surprisingly, what started as a simple Google search on the Caribbean in the winter of 2007, quickly escalated into a heartfelt fascination about Haiti, and a need to implement my services to help in anyway I could.

The weeks that followed, that search engine took me through a series of links that led me to people who could offer up pertinent information. One thing that had occurred to me during this searching, was that a buck could be spent a whole lot better at a ground level movement, while leaving communities in charge of their own destiny… I don’t know, call me optimistic, or idealistic, but this rose to the top of the checklist of how I wanted to help. Being a creative thinker, I was simply trying to seek an alternative to the norm.

Just outside SOPUDEP in Port-au-Prince.

Just outside SOPUDEP in Port-au-Prince.

To my eyes, the multinational sector didn’t seem to very efficient at eradicating poverty, or instilling any kind of independence or hope in the people they were supposed to be serving. My vague inkling of small grassroots organizations being able to take a large roll in shaping community sustainability grew in leaps when I came across SOPUDEP. After two hours of speaking to SOPUDEP Director, Madam Rea Dol for the first time in Haiti, I knew that I was on the right path. I would start The Sawatzky Family Foundation, dedicated to providing support for grassroots organizations in Haiti, with SOPUDEP as our primary recipient.

Like most “first-worlders,” coming to a poverty-stricken country such as Haiti, I had many preconceived ideas of what I could offer in intellectual support. It quickly became clear that I had to check my ego and let them run with the ball. And here began the struggle. My roll was that of supporter and advocate of Haitian grassroots, but the language I was speaking was foreign to many back home. People simply couldn’t grasp that I was essentially funneling money to an organization that was founded and run by the very people who they saw as needing our intervention.

It became clear, that inspiring stories of ground up community efforts weren’t enough. It also had to be about educating individuals on the roots of third-world poverty; which to their surprise wasn’t because of a reluctance to adopt Western European economic traditions. It was this long-standing economic system, that had put a strangle hold on people, generation after generation. Shocker? Not so much anymore. But eight years ago, these were fighting words among certain circles. I felt for a while, that I might be a member of a very select crowd who believed that poverty stricken countries could find there own way out, if we only let them.

Students at SOPUDEP

Students at SOPUDEP

After the devastating Haiti earthquake that occurred on January 12th, 2010, there was a media blitz, with multinational NGO’s and first response organizations thrusting into the spotlight. But there was a more important story going largely unnoticed by international reporters; that local organizations were coming together to bring assistance to their communities when no one else was. When I heard that a small crew from the New York Times was documenting the work that SOPUDEP was doing to bring relief to their community, I was… pleasantly shocked.

When A Path Appears aired, I was elated. A Path Appears is testament that the language of charity is changing. It’s less about our implementation and more about us being a shoulder to lean on for people.

Support isn’t blind faith, but it takes educating. Wanting to help is a first step, but being sensitive enough to leave those community-embedded organizations to lead the change is essential, and more importantly, sustainable. Beneficial change comes from genuine solidarity, developing relationships, and an ability to keep an open mind and heart. It is here that we find ourselves building a new path, looking too a horizon that offers hope for all.

About the blogger:

Ryan Sawatzky is the founder and director of the Sawatzky Family Foundation which was born from his passion for social justice, local grassroots projects and developing opportunities for a hand up, as opposed to the hand out that perpetuates a cycle of aid. The Foundation’s first collaborating organization, which is the foundation’s biggest recipient of funds, is SOPUDEP. Their mandate is to provide accessible education to children whose parents cannot afford the regular high price of regular tuition.

Transitioning from the Life to My Life

As a survivor, I have often faced people who do not take my voice seriously; people who think, “Once a ho, always a ho.” For a while, I believed that too. Now I know different.

My story of survival began in Boston in the 1970s. A light-skinned, African-American girl, I was taunted by neighborhood kids, called names like white girl and pus-colored. By age ten I had little self-esteem and self-worth, and was living in a home wrecked by alcoholism and absent of nurturing. I was taught to be seen and not heard.

I met my first pimp when I was fifteen. Within a year he became my boyfriend and the father of my first daughter. A handsome transfer student, the attention he paid me was unexpected and I quickly fell in love. We rode through the bright lights of Boston’s old Combat Zone and all I saw were fur coats, diamonds, and glamour. He told me that if I went to work for us, we could buy our own place and a car, and have a wonderful life for ourselves and our daughter.

Half The Sky

Audrey outside My Life My Choice, in the Boston winter.

I was in the “Life” until a heroin addiction forced me into detox at age thirty. At that time, no one was out there supporting commercially sexually exploited women and girls. The only intervention I got was from a van that handed out condoms to protect the men buying sex from the unclean prostitutes. Because of programs like My Life My Choice, that has changed.

In 2003, I began co-leading My Life My Choice with Lisa Goldblatt Grace, co-founder and Director. One year later, I founded our Survivor Mentoring program that pairs exploited and high risk youth with a trained Survivor Mentor for a one-on-one, long-term relationship. As Associate Director, I have used my voice to advocate and empower youth caught in the Life, and adult survivors of commercial sexual exploitation; and now we offer a continuum of survivor-led services that focus on preventing the commercial sexual exploitation of youth.

My Life My Choice has trained more than 6,000 service providers in commercial sexual exploitation, reached more than 1,500 vulnerable girls with its prevention curriculum, and mentored more than 250 youth. I am so proud of how far we have come: from two staff to fourteen, from one mentor to seven. Last year alone we mentored 126 high risk or exploited youth.

Audrey with Nick Kristof during the shoot of A Path Appears.

Audrey with Nick Kristof during the shoot of A Path Appears.

In 2007, I was humbled to be awarded the Petra Foundation Fellowship and in 2012 I was named a Boston Neighborhood Fellow, a huge honor in my community. I have transformed from a child that was silenced to a strong, confident woman with a megaphone. The recognition I have received for my work is proof that one voice does make a difference.

To all survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, you are more than what they call you. You are more than a prostitute. Let go of that stigma. You can be anything you want to be. Chase your dream, whatever it is. I found my voice by helping others and fighting against commercial sexual exploitation. Find your passion and use your voice!

Fundraising Websites – Crowdrise

Tackling Poverty in Colombia

My name is Catalina Escobar. I was born and raised in Colombia, a country typically violent with great social despair. I was very fortunate to grow up in a family where my brother and I were raised with love, respect, equal opportunities and where education was one of the main pillars. I studied in Europe, Japan and in the U.S., and speak three languages. Despite my traveling, I was always aware of what was going on in my country and constantly thought of going back to help in some way. The news was always bad: how drug lords were infiltrating the government, guerrillas killing famers and burning the country’s infrastructure, people being forcibly displaced, growing extreme poverty, corruption and, of course, all of the gender violence and inequality one can possibly imagine.

When I returned to Colombia, I started working in banking. I was in the private sector with many personal aspirations, but I was always trying to give back to society by making donations and by volunteering in some initiatives. Soon I got married and started a family. In 1998, with our first child, we moved to my husband’s hometown of Cartagena for about three years.

Cartagena is a beautiful city located in the northern part of Colombia along the Caribbean Sea, very wealthy indeed in some parts but, without a doubt, one of the cities in the country that has the greatest social disparity: 68% of the population is under the poverty line, and of those 29% in utter misery.


Catalina visiting the informal settlements of Cartagena.

By the end of the year 2000, I was personally affected by the deaths of two babies, changing the course of my life. I was a volunteer at the Rafael Calvo Maternity Hospital twice a week, the biggest hospital in town – 50% of the population is born there, all of them poor. During one of my visits, a newborn baby passed away in my arms. It was a preventable death. That life could have been saved with the $30 I had in my pocket; her teen mother couldn’t raise the money to cover the baby’s treatment. A week later my own second son, Juan Felipe, who was only 16 months old, died from an accident when he fell from an eighth-floor balcony. Broken hearted, I decided to take action so that no mother would have to feel such grief, just because she didn’t have the money to save her children.

With these two incidents, I decided to sell my small company and found the Juan Felipe Escobar Foundation (JuanFe) with two main purposes: to save children’s lives and to work with teen mothers who live in extreme poverty, by providing opportunities so they can overcome poverty traps such as unwanted pregnancies, lack of real economic opportunities, lack of quality education, lack of proper access to healthcare, domestic and sexual violence, and gender discrimination.

All of my talents and energy were focused on two objectives: create real social transformation and impact, and to create an organization that is both sustainable and replicable overtime. I knew the problem was enormous. I knew that I was going to face many barriers, from violence in the communities to fundraising, but I wasn’t afraid.

Daycare at JuanFe

Lunchtime at JuanFe

The JuanFe Foundation was conceived since the beginning as an organization that would always target the critical factors of poverty. In the first eight years of operation, we reduced the total infant mortality rate in the city by 81%  from when it was the highest in the country, saving the lives of more than 3,500 babies. By the year 2000, approximately 50 children in Cartagena would not survive to the age of five (per 1,000 live births); by the end of 2009, that number decreased to about 11. In targeting just one hospital, the Rafael Calvo, we created high social impact. Eventually we realized there was a major underlying problem here: all these babies were trapped in poverty, because their mothers were trapped in poverty. 30% of women who give birth in Cartagena are teenagers, and the vast majority of them are from marginalized communities. It took us almost seven years to develop what we call the “360 Degree Intervention Model” in order to break the cycle of poverty, which includes access to healthcare, psychological and emotional counseling, and skills training for productive activities.

Like many of the developing countries that face violence and poverty, women and girls are the main target for abuse. A poor girl is more likely to either be recruited by the guerrillas, become a sexual slave for the paramilitaries, be sexually abused, become pregnant at early age, suffer from malnutrition, become a victim of physical violence, or all of the above.

Young girl from "Boston," one of the roughest neighborhoods in Cartagena.

Young girl from “Boston,” one of the roughest neighborhoods in Cartagena.

That’s why every time I see one of my girls fulfilling her dreams by graduating from our program, having a responsible sex-life, being employed, earning a decent and stable income, breaking those chains of poverty, I feel like the proudest mom ever. All of the 2,800 girls we have worked with are my daughters.

In the last quarter century there has been a lot of positive change for women and girls around the world, and gradually organizations have realized that gender equality is the best instrument for development. More and more, studies prove that investing in education and development for women is not only the right thing to do, but also a long-term investment. After 14 years in this field, I have seen young women move forward with the full conviction that they are key agents of change, and that it is the right and obligation for every society to make women and girls a priority.

About the blogger:

Catalina Escobar is the founder of the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation. Her active participation in this field has made her a well-recognized social entrepreneur in Colombia. She has been recognized by different financial and business magazines in the country and has been acknowledged as as one of the most Successful Young Leaders (Revista Dinero, 2003), Colombian Social Innovators (Revista Poder, 2008), and as one of the Main Leaders in Colombia of 2011 (Revista Gerente). The Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, honored Catalina with the National Merit Order Award in 2011. In 2012 she was part of the Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women´s Partnership, and she became a Top 10 CNN Heroes. The following year, Women’s eNews recognized her as one of the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century in the U.S. Additionally in August 2013, Catalina became one of the 10 Best Colombian Leaders by Revista Semana, and she is currently an Ashoka Fellow.


Finding the Right Information for Survivors of Domestic Violence

About 18 months ago I stumbled upon an opportunity.

I had been thinking about the future of Theresa’s Fund, a private foundation my father had set up 23 years ago to help prevent domestic violence. Theresa’s Fund had done a lot of incredible work, primarily in Arizona and through my father’s efforts, raising millions, growing awareness and helping domestic violence programs improve.

So, when it was finally my turn to step up, I did like so many others these days, and I took to the Internet. I searched all sorts of words related to domestic violence, learned a lot and realized that there was tons of information out there on domestic violence. That wasn’t a problem.

What was a challenge, though, was trying to find the right help quickly and easily. My search results – like anyone else’s would – produced listings of attorneys, help blogs, questionable ad-driven sites, and state and national organizations. Occasionally, at the bottom of the first page or on the next pages, I would find a nearby domestic violence program.

Half The Sky

This struck me as a problem. A real problem. I imagined most people looking for help would want to find a local program to escape to quickly, to recover in and to plan for the future… and they might need that information fast and without having to wade through endless search results.

It turns out that what I unearthed was an even larger problem than I first thought. According to Google, there are 36 million searches conducted in the U.S. for information related to domestic violence, and most often those searches are related to seeking help.

That night, I realized that what was needed was what has since become known as, the first online searchable database of 3,200+ domestic violence programs in the U.S. People can now find the help they need faster and easier; with two clicks, in fact.


The site offers up to 156 easy-to-compare data points on thousands of domestic violence programs in all 50 states. We soon will be adding Canada to the mix. Visitors simply enter their zip code, and the site returns a list of programs ordered within a visitor-defined radius. Visitors can further refine the list they receive based on their language and service preferences.

Along the way, and before we launched the site in August of 2014, word spread of our ambition and we connected with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a pioneer in the space that has proven to be an invaluable resource, guide and partner on the project.

There are many great services in the domestic violence help ecosystem. For instance, there is the National Domestic Violence Hotline that gives survivors a single place to call, and among other things, get referrals to local resources. Where fits in is that it is the first to provide comprehensive help in the place that people, nowadays, most commonly seek it: online.


I’ve seen statistics that say 75% of people’s decisions first involve an Internet search. If you’re like me, you know that when you wonder about something, anything, you search. And when you do, for topics related to domestic violence, hopefully is now there for you.

In five short months of life, the has helped 70,000 people. The traffic is growing at a startling rate that looks to make the site one of the most visited – if not the most in the most visited – in the U.S. in this particular field within a year or two.

I’m not sure we would have predicted these results for simply moving the exploration of the domestic violence programs to the forefront of Internet search results, and presenting visitors this information with standardized data that allows for easy comparisons and educated, fast decisions. But, as they say, sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones.

About the blogger:
Chris has been involved in the prevention of domestic violence for 20+ years through his family’s private foundation Theresa’s Fund, which was established by his father in 1992 and has helped raise over $40 million for Arizona programs. He founded in 2014 which is the country’s first online and mobile searchable database of domestic violence programs. is operated in partnership with National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. During the last 25 years, Chris has founded and/or led multiple companies through growth and transition, including the country’s largest content marketing company now called McMurry/TMG and technology companies such as The Amazing Flameless Candle, NJOY and NameSilo.

About NCADV: 
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) has worked since 1978 to make every home a safe home. NCADV works to raise awareness about domestic violence; to educate and create programming and technical assistance, to assist the public in addressing the issue and to support those impacted by domestic violence.

About Theresa’s Fund: 
Theresa’s Fund is a private foundation started in 1992 by Preston V. McMurry, Jr. that has helped to change the landscape of domestic violence services in Arizona through grant making, board development and fundraising that has helped to generate many millions in donations for Arizona-based organizations such as East Valley Child Crisis Center, Sojourner Center, Florence Crittenden, Emerge, UMOM, and West Valley Child Crisis Center. It developed the concept as a way to expand its reach to people across the U.S.

Together for Girls: Clearing Land Mines

Many years ago, global leaders and the UN mobilized to address the problem of land mines left over from past conflicts. The picture here is simple and visceral—an innocent person, maybe a child, steps on a land mine, and their life is blown away.

Losing a child to a land mine is shameful. Even more shameful is the far larger number of children who are afflicted by metaphorical land mines. These are the estimated one billion children who experience some form of violence each year.

Think of a young girl, perhaps 12 or 13 years old, who is sexually abused by an older man, perhaps a trusted adult such as an uncle or a teacher. Life as she knew it is completely changed by this experience. If she lives in a country with a high prevalence of HIV & AIDS, she will have as much as four times higher probability of contracting this disease over her lifetime. She will also have about a 30 percent chance of having an unwanted pregnancy. If pregnant, she is then at five times a greater risk for dying in childbirth compared with a woman over 20 years old. And she is more likely to be afflicted with chronic health problems, such as depression, substance abuse as well as thoughts of and attempts at suicide. These conditions make her far more likely to drop out of school, fundamentally impairing her future potential, and that of the society she lives in. Her life is blown away.


In 2007, while working intensively on helping address the HIV & AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, I came to observe and learn first-hand about sexual violence against girls and its impact on spreading disease. This was not an area I had any experience in or intended to work on, but when I learned that in many high HIV prevalence locations, 75 percent of infected youth were girls and young women, it was clear that something was wrong.

At the time, there was a huge focus on extending anti-retroviral treatment (ART) to people living with HIV & AIDS. But for every person put on ART, there were five to six new infections. It made me determined to understand and address the source of these new infections. This led me to focus on sexual violence against girls as an underlying cause of some of the world’s most intractable health problems.

What I learned was that few—if any—programs existed to address this problem. There were gender-based violence initiatives, but these mostly focused on women, not girls. Committed to addressing this issue, I reached out to the network I cultivated throughout my career. In doing so, I came across a methodology that had been implemented in Swaziland by UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This approach, which involved doing house-to-house surveys with girls and young women to amass data on the extent of sexual violence against girls, became the basis for mobilizing a new partnership.

Photo Credit: Julie Pudlowski @UNICEF Tanzania

Photo Credit: Julie Pudlowski @UNICEF Tanzania

In September 2009 at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, President Clinton launched what is today known as Together for Girls, the first partnership specifically focused on ending violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls. Our partnership includes five UN agencies (UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNFPA, UN Women and WHO); the U.S. government through CDC and PEPFAR; the Government of Canada; and several private sector partners, including the Nduna Foundation, Becton, Dickinson & Co. and GrupoABC.

Together for Girls and its partners collaborate on a three-part approach: 1) interviewing 13- to 24-year- olds (males and females), through national household surveys, on their experiences with childhood violence, 2) using the data to mobilize government-led, multi-sectoral, national actions to prevent violence and provide services to children who have experienced violence, 3) raising global awareness through advocacy programs. In just five years, Together for Girls has expanded these efforts to 17 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, where local leaders are spearheading this critical work.

The humanity of any society can be determined by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Violence against children, particularly sexual violence, is a fundamental violation of their human rights. It destroys their potential and undermines the development of their communities. There are far too many land mines that children may step on throughout their lives, through no fault of their own. Working with our partners, Together for Girls seeks to clear these land mines, so that children have the opportunity to grow up happy, healthy and safe and achieve their full human potential.

Gary and the children of Nyumbani.

Gary and the children of Nyumbani.

About the blogger:

Gary Cohen is executive vice president of BD (Becton, Dickinson & Co.), a global medical technology company with over $8 billion revenues and 30,000 employees in 50 countries. Gary founded Together for Girls, a public-private partnership focused on ending violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls. He is also acting CEO of GBCHealth, former board chair of the CDC Foundation and a board director of the Perrigo Company, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and the Accordia Global Health Foundation. Additionally, Gary serves as chair of the Corporate/CDC Roundtable on Global Health Threats and a vice chair of the UN Special Envoy’s Office for Financing the Health-Related MDGs. Gary is a member of the UN Secretary General’s Network of Men Leaders associated with UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign.

Building Community-Rooted Change

This summer I was driving down a dirt road in Uganda with Canon Gideon, who founded Hope University near Kampla to serve at risk youth and young adults in severe poverty and suffering the effects of HIV/AIDS. We were developing a partnership between women tea farmers in Uganda and the women who work for the social enterprise here called Thistle Farms. I had founded a program almost 20 years before this drive with housing and work for women who have been trafficked, traumatized, locked in closets, beaten, raped, sold, addicted and feeling rootless. We were discussing how to become better advocates for women who have known the underside of bridges, the backside of anger, the inside of prison walls and the short side of justice.

I told Gideon the story of my abuse, and how I decided 18 years ago that I needed to confront my abuser. When I did, I was surprised that the first thing the man who molested me asked was, “Who have you told?” In response, Gideon told me that on his journey when he told the head of the seminary that he was HIV positive in 1988, the first thing his Professor said was, “Don’t tell anyone.”

Canon Gideon with Becca Stevens in Uganda

The documentary A Path Appears, celebrates brave women who dared to speak their truth and helps us discover how our truth can set us free. The truth untangles deep problems and hidden secrets. Then and only then, we find communities committed to housing, recovery, trauma therapy, economic freedom and love without judgment.

Many people who see this documentary will ask how it’s possible that the New York Times reports that more than 100,000 women and girls in the U.S. are at risk for trafficking. More folks will want to know what they can do to help.

Thistle Farms is committed to continuing its efforts to offer education and outreach to assist more cities in creating sister communities. We welcome everyone to our workshops and feed them at the Thistle Stop Café. We want to help be a part of a movement with social media advocates, conscious consumers and new friends in the fight to witness to the truth that love is the most powerful force for social change.

ladies of TF

As Gideon and I drove and talked about the universal issues of sexual violence borne on the individual backs of women all over the globe, we remembered that this work is non-competitive. We need each other to grow our economic leverage, political clout, and clinical insights to make a difference in a culture that still buys and sell women, preys on the most vulnerable, and keeps the secrets of predators.

As we drove down the dirt road, I felt myself washed in a wave of grief at the injustices I’ve seen, and the tenderness I feel towards the mercy of a community that hopes together. We are committed with friends throughout the world to make the social enterprise more successful, to bring in more women from the streets and to make the system more just. We need each other to do this work, which is not issue oriented but rather community rooted, to create systemic change.


About the blogger:
Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest and founder of Magdalene, residential communities of women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction. She founded the social enterprise Thistle Farms which currently employs nearly 50 residents and graduates, and houses a natural body care line, a paper and sewing studio, Thistle Stop Café, and its new global initiative, Shared Trade. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, ABC World News, NPR, PBS, CNN, and Huffington Post, and was named as one of 15 Champions of Change for violence against women by the White House in 2011. Stevens has also been inducted into the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame, and recently launched her newest book, “The Way of Tea & Justice: Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage from its Violent History.”

The Reality of Sex Trafficking in America

No girl deserves to just disappear. Every girl is valuable. These two beliefs guide my life and are what inspired me to found FAIR Girls when I was just 23.

It all started my first year of college while studying abroad in Germany. I’m from a small Texas town and had always dreamed of going to Europe, but what I found there was nothing like what I expected.

Her name was Rafif, and she was 19. Just a little older than I was then. We bonded quickly during German classes. And, I soon learned the man in his 60s who came to pick her up each day after class was her husband. While I was studying and hanging out with my boyfriend, Rafif was a domestic slave who had been traded to pay for a debt her parents owed to a man with three other wives.


Rafif slowly trusted me. Her bruises were a map of the exploitation and trafficking she endured as his wife and servant. As far as I know, she is the first victim of human trafficking who I had ever met. When she disappeared a few months later, I decided to search for her. What was perhaps as devastating as her disappearance was that no one else seemed to care. The police, social services, and even friends told me that was just what happened to girls like her. It was as if Rafif was expendable. While I searched for her throughout Bosnia, for years afterwards, she was gone. And, she is why I believe reaching girls before they disappear into the world of human trafficking is critical. That is why, FAIR Girls now trains hundreds of law enforcement and social workers who are at the front lines to see when girls like Rafif are being exploited or abused.

I didn’t have a background in nonprofit management. I don’t come from a wealthy family whose resources could sustain me during the early years. Like most nonprofits, we started at my kitchen table with volunteers. I worked late nights on top of my job and often missed out on dates and family gatherings to try to make FAIR Girls thrive.

It wasn’t until I had been building FAIR Girls a few years that I began to realize that sex trafficking was as pervasive in the United States as it was in places like Bosnia, where Rafif had grown up. In 2007, we started going to girls’ detention facilities and foster homes to educate girls about sex trafficking. By this time, we knew that pimps often lured girls out of foster homes, and that most of them had been abused at home and lived in extreme poverty. It was at one of these homes where I met 17-year-old Janel, who had been exploited and sold by her foster mom for drug money since she was 4.

Night_of_the_Girl 211


After talking for hours outside the group home, I told her that if she wanted to talk about things, she could call me. And at 2AM, the day before Thanksgiving and two days before her 18th birthday, she did. Her mom had kicked her out again, and was afraid of her mom’s pimp who had threatened to kill her. She was hiding in her pajamas behind Starbucks in downtown D.C. when I showed up. As we jumped into a taxi to go to Child and Family Services, people where passing us by on their way to work at law firms and investment firms along K street.

When we arrived to Child and Family Services, we were told they couldn’t help because she was turning 18. They didn’t believe Janel was a victim of sex trafficking. Actually, they didn’t know that sex trafficking happened in America. I didn’t know where Janel would stay that night because all of the shelters were full. Ten hours later, I found one woman, a volunteer who had met Janel weeks earlier at a church, who offered to let her move into her small apartment with her.

Over the next few years, I saw Janel almost every day in FAIR Girls’ drop-in center and we often talked late into the night when she felt alone and not sure she could make it. She attended art classes, job finding classes, and even volunteered at FAIR Girls as part of a school project. That was now seven years ago, and I just heard from Janel that she is in community college and has her own apartment.

When I was growing up, I had parents who made sure I was safe, got to school, and was loved. Most of the girls I know at FAIR Girls didn’t have adults who could or would care for them. That is how girls like Janel almost disappear every day in America and around the world without a trace.

There are so many more girls who need our help. FAIR Girls has more than 20 employees now. There are police, social workers, and teachers who still need to be trained. More laws to ensure victims of sex trafficking are protected rather than be arrested as “prostitutes” need to be passed.

Sometimes I look back at where we started, and all I can think is “whoa.” We recently opened the Vida Home, an emergency home for girls aged 17 to 24 who, like Janel, have nowhere to go after escaping sex trafficking. Yet, there is a lot more that we want to do. And, we can’t stop now. I will always believe that every single girl who comes into FAIR Girls is worth fighting for, no matter what her past may be.


About the blogger:
Andrea Powell is founder and Executive Director of FAIR Girls, a nonprofit serving young women and girl survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Since 2004, Andrea has led FAIR Girls’ efforts to prevent the sex trafficking and exploitation of girls in the United States and in FAIR Girls’ global programs. Andrea currently serves as the FAIR Girls’ chief liaison to the D.C. Anti Trafficking Task Force and has trained hundreds of U.S. and international first line responders on how to identify and assist victims of sex and forced labor trafficking. Ms. Powell currently acts as an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University teaching courses in global sex trafficking and girl’s empowerment.

Just a Little Support to Succeed: The Nurse-Family Partnership

When I first met Christina at her home, she was a shy and guarded 15-year old. She was enrolling in the Nurse-Family Partnership® (NFP) program – a maternal and child health program for low-income, first-time moms. I knew from her WIC (Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Food and Nutrition Education Program) referral form that she had a high-risk pregnancy with gestational diabetes and hadn’t checked her blood sugar level in days.

Christina’s pregnancy was unplanned – the result of a casual encounter with a friend. As a NFP nurse home visitor, I was there to guide her to have a healthy pregnancy and help her give her child a brighter future, and I knew we had a challenging road ahead. I first began by encouraging her to take her prenatal vitamins and check her blood sugar to monitor her diabetes.

I asked her, “If poverty weren’t an issue, what would you like to do with your life? If you think beyond the block where you live, what would you do for you and your baby?” These were questions that Christina had never been asked before.

Cassandra with Christina and her son.

Cassandra with Christina and her son.

Much of the dialogue she had with adults was surrounding the mistakes she had made or the trauma of abuse from her mother. Christina had been neglected and allowed to drink at an early age. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father was incarcerated – circumstance that had left Christina homeless at times. I asked myself, “How can I as the only stable person in Christina’s life position myself to increase preventative care and lessen the effects of the childhood trauma, so as to improve the outcomes for her baby and support Christina in stopping the cycle of abuse, neglect and poverty?”

Fortunately, after she gave birth, I had the next two years of her child’s life to continue exploring these questions with Christina. By visiting in her home approximately every other week, I would earn her trust.

When Christina’s baby arrived the possibilities that she saw for herself really broadened. Slowly some of her walls she had constructed, as a result of years of not feeling supported, started to come down. Christina began opening up and sharing that she wanted to continue school. She was supposed to be in the ninth grade, but her attendance was low. Christina didn’t have an adult in her life parenting her, let alone directing her toward education. With a lot of encouragement, Christina realized her strengths and the importance of education. Today, she is working to complete her GED.

School has been a safe haven for Christina, a place where she can work toward her future goal of getting her GED that will allow her to pursue a job and save up enough money to get her own place and be fully independent from her family.

She has shared that her goals are for her son to have a brighter future. Christina wants him to be strong, healthy and safe. She realizes that she is her child’s first teacher and how to establish love as a safe base, making parenting choices different from her own parents.

I have supported her to make improvements in monitoring her diabetes. Christina knows that it us up to her to take care of her son and thinks, “Who will be there to take care of him, if something happens to me?” She is meeting her goals of learning to cook healthy foods for her son and herself and to lose weight.

Christina has transformed since the first day I met her. She now walks taller and smiles brighter. I am proud of the transformation she has made and the direction she is heading. She is not a scared teenager anymore. She is a mom that wants the best for her child.

As her son – healthy and happy – reaches his second birthday and Christina prepares to graduate from Nurse-Family Partnership, she no longer has that guarded demeanor when we first met, but instead confidence as a new mother. When asked what she has learned, she responds matter-of-factly, “Everything! You gave me hope! You showed me that someone cared, and I learned how to be a mom, take care of my son. I know my life. I know what I can do. You taught me that.”

About the blogger:

Cassandra Standifer, BSN, PHN-NFP, is a public health nurse who conducts home visitations as a part of the Nurse-Family Partnership program in King County, Washington. Nurse-Family Partnership currently serves over 30,000 low-income, first-time moms and their children in 43 states. Learn more at Nurse Family Partnership.