Fifteen. That’s the number that Janice and Don Hughes’ family has grown in the past year, the number of young girls that their nonprofit organization, Seven Sisters International, has taken in after their rescue from forced child labor and prostitution.
Based in Guwahati, the capitol of the state of Assam in northeastern India, Seven Sisters International offers the girls a safe place to live, learn and get a new lease on life. It’s run by Janice and Don, with the help of seven local women caregivers, a housekeeper, cook, administration assistants, four teachers and three American volunteers. The top floor of the building serves as office and living space for the Hughes, who live there almost year-round, except for a few months when they come to the U.S. to visit family and, mostly, fundraise for the organization.
A BIG DECISION
The Hughes did not take the decision to start Seven Sisters lightly. The seed for the project was sown in 2005, when Don traveled to Calcutta (southern India) to set up an office for the International Justice Mission, a nonprofit organization that fights globally for human rights issues, including widows’ rights, child labor and child prostitution.
Don, a retired police officer and lawyer, fit in well with the organization, training undercover agents to go into brothels and expose child prostitution to the government.
“The problem was, when we got the girls out of the red light areas, there was no good place to put them,” he said.
After being rescued from a situation of physical or sexual abuse, the girls are often sent back to their parents (if they’re still alive). The problem, Don said, is that many times the parents are the ones who sold the girls into that situation in the first place.
In 2008, the Hughes returned to America and bought a house in Summit County. However, the plight of the girls they had witnessed in India didn’t leave them. They knew what was needed — aftercare for the victims, particularly in the underserved northeastern area — and that they were the ones to do it.
“We came back here and made a tough decision to leave our comfortable life here to start a nonprofit,” said Janice with a laugh. “But it’s just been really great.”
They made plans, toured other organizations and locations, and gathered startup money.
“People that donated really had faith in us personally, that’s what it was,” Janice said.
By early 2013, they were ready with their location, staff and first girls.
LEARNING HOW TO LEARN
At the Seven Sisters building, the girls’ day is filled, with classes starting at 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., followed by activities such as craft making, music lessons and exercise. Subjects taught include three languages — English, Assamese and Hindi — mathematics, science and social sciences.
Most of the girls have never been to school before, said Janice, and have to be taught how to learn. Now that some of the girls have been with them for a year, they have begun seeing improvements. One, for example, was completely illiterate when she arrived, and is now doing long division. Others are now able to carry on conversations with Janice and Don in English. Janice beams as she speaks of each girl’s accomplishments.
Academic learning is the primary focus of their education, as opposed to vocational teaching, Janice said, with literacy as number one.
“Our girls come to us feeling totally defeated. They’re 14 years old (and think) they’ve already wasted their life and it’s too late for everything,” she said. “And we encourage them. ‘No, you can go really far, you can possibly even go to college.’ … So that’s why we want to focus on academics.”
THE HEALING PROCESS
Coming from such abusive backgrounds, the girls suffer from post-traumatic stress and often other mental and behavioral issues as well. They receive visits from a counselor, and Janice has an American psychologist that she can call for advice. They also benefit from being in a safe environment, where they can do things like take classes, paint and color or go on field trips, often for the first time in their lives.
“It’s really neat to see their creativity because when they first come, they’ve never even colored in their life,” said Janice.
The change is noticeable.
“They seem real hardened when they come, and they just get younger and younger every day, and more childlike,” she said. “They discover a childhood they never had.”
Their transformation is also physical. They receive medical care, including dentist and eye doctor visits, and eat nutritious meals every day.
“They love to sing. They love to dance,” said Don with a smile.
While they are pleased with the success of Seven Sisters so far, the Hughes are looking to expand. They’d like to improve their facilities, and eventually own their own land and a larger building with more space both indoors and out. Currently they serve girls ages 12 to 18, and they would like to also start a transitional home for the girls after they turn 18, as well as some small businesses where the transitioning girls could learn working skills and potentially become employed.
These expansions will cost money, however, and they also need to continue to raise money for their current expenses, which often exceed their $8-10,000 a month budget.
They are holding a fundraising tea event in Summit County, June 14, at the Church at Agape Outpost. Don and Janice will show photos and talk about their experiences with the girls. The event is free, with all donations going directly to Seven Sisters International.
While the path has been challenging, both Don and Janice are looking forward to the future and feeling grateful for their successes.
“(It’s a) daunting responsibility, but I mean, the payoffs are much greater than any sacrifice we make,” said Don.
“You just want to do so much for them,” said Janice. “You want to do everything you can for them.”
Their connection with the girls is more than just a temporary one, but rather, lifelong.
“These are our kids for life now,” Janice said.
Don agreed. “We would do anything for these girls that we would do for our own children.”