Sarah Lance was 26 years old when she first went to India.
"I was moved by what I saw there," said Lance, a Fort Wayne resident who just moved here in August. But it wasn’t the Taj Mahal or the ancient ruins that stirred her. It was the rampant human trafficking she witnessed while working as a volunteer for Missionaries of Charity.
Lance, now 43, has been working in India ever since, returning home periodically. For a few years, she worked for Word Made Flesh, another faith-based charity that works with those she called the poorest of the poor.
Ten years ago, she started her own faith-based organization in Kolkata, also known as Calcutta. Her operation is called Sari Bari, which roughly translates into sari house. Workers take old saris, those colorful lengths of cloth that women in India wrap around their waists and drape over their shoulders, and make things out of them – quilts, bags, purses, scarfs – and sell them.
What is different about Lance’s operation is that for employees she relies on women who were victims of human trafficking, women who had been working in the sex trade, some starting when they were as young as 12.
Sari Bari offered a way for those women to escape and start a new, free life.
Today Sari Bari has about 120 employees. Lance calls them artisans. They are taught to hand stitch high-quality products.
Earlier this year Lance and Sari Bari got a visit from some people who said they were with an outfit called Opus. She’d never heard of them. They were just some people with a foundation, she figured. Foundations do that. They visit nonprofits and ponder giving them financial support.
What Lance didn’t know, though, is that the people were with something called the Opus Prize.
The Opus Prize is huge, and, though Lance didn’t know it, Sari Bari had been nominated to receive one.
Last week word came that Lance’s organization would receive one of three awards. Two other organizations received $100,000 prizes for their work.
But Sari Bari? In a huge ceremony in Omaha, Nebraska, on Thursday night it was announced that Sari Bari, which had $167,600 in sales last year but only made about $7,400 in profit, had won a $1 million Opus Prize, as The Journal Gazette reported.
Lance won’t get the money. It will go to her operation in Kolkata.
Right now Lance is living in West Central. She’s going to be in the U.S. for a while, trying to raise awareness of Sari Bari and get sales up. Sari Bari sells all over the world online.
But she’ll be heading back to India periodically where, with the prize, she’ll be able to expand her operation and create jobs and freedom for another couple of hundred women.
The nonprofit’s website, simply enough, is saribari.com.
Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.