Redeeming Stories with Pennies
Pennies. We seem them everyday -- in the road, in the corners of our couch, on the floors of frequented restaurants -- and until now, I would probably just walk by them without much thought. It's the coin I most often discard and overlook. Its worth is little, and therefore I assign such a small value to it.
Worthless. Invaluable. Overlooked. Sadly, the same characteristics associated with this copper coin are the labels that many women today put on themselves. One organization, though, is on a mission to restore the dignity and worth of women, and their impact starts with a penny.
The Soteria Initiative was founded by Khue Paige as a jewelry company that give pennies a new purpose (on necklaces) and provides employment to women in Phoenix. Their goal? To empower women to break the cycle of abuse and exploitation -- because in their words "freedom is worth every penny". We couldn't agree more!
Khue served as a victim advocate prior to starting her business, and during this period grew close with one of the residents. She learned about the resident's life and struggles after being trafficked and the trouble finding employment due to her background and history. During one of their visits together, Khue asked the resident if there was a word that resonated with her story -- and the word that most stuck with her was "endure." This woman had endured so much, yet she was so much stronger than she believed.
With this encountered engraved on her heart, Khue went home that night and stamped "Endure" on a penny and gifted it as a necklace to the resident. A simple gesture with lasting and impactful meaning. She didn't know it then, but that meaningful act would later be the first word stamped on her penny necklaces through the The Soteria Initiative. Today, The Soteria Initiative employs women in Phoenix where they create beautiful necklaces from pennies that include a personalized stamped word on each piece.
Khue's heart is so dear to us. Her creativity in using a simple material such as pennies to create sustainable employment is changing lives in a way we want others to get behind. “Soteria," which is Greek for deliverance, safety, and preservation, is the perfect namesake for an organization that is providing hope and security for those in need.
Today, we are chatting with Khue about her business, the ways she's addressing human trafficking, her men's necklace line (yay!!), and her participation in Dressember! Khue was gracious enough to gift Phil and I both a a beautiful necklace to shoot for this post. They are so lovely! We chose the word "Light" on our necklaces -- Elleanor's name not only means light, but as parents we are fighting for light in dark places. We hope you love today's conversation!
What was the inspiration for starting your business?
I remember sitting in one of my undergrad classes and watching a documentary on Homeboy Industries and it honestly changed my life. If you haven't heard about Homeboy Industries or seen the documentary G-Dog, stop reading this and go look it up. Father Greg aka G-Dog's believed in second chances and that providing jobs to gang members -- "nothing stops a bullet like a job". I was so inspired and amazed to see a job change a person's life and make a huge impact on their community.
Fast forward to after grad school and working as a human trafficking case manager. Every single one of my clients struggled with finding employment. Whether it was because of lack of education or job experience, having things on their record, trouble getting childcare, the list went on and on. Many of my clients ended up contacting their pimps and going back to the life and I just thought to myself that there had to be something we could do. What if we created job opportunities for them, using a similar model like at Homeboy Industries and many other social enterprise companies nowadays.
We love how you have taken a penny, something we often see as invaluable or easily discarded, and have given these coins new life and purpose. What is the message you are hoping to send by using these symbols in your jewelry?
The penny holds so many meanings. It represents the millions of victims of human trafficking, that have been used and abused, and go unnoticed. Pennies are often times just thrown on the ground to be stepped on and forgotten. People think pennies don't hold any value or worth and that's how many of our engravers have been treated. But we want to come alongside them and say no, you do have value and so much worth. We want to give pennies a new purpose that helps provide work. There's power in something as small as a penny. Every penny counts, every person counts and together we can make a difference.
On each penny, customers can have a word etched on the front. Do you have a particular word or story behind a requested engraving that has really resonated with you?
I got the chance to meet the sweetest family this time last year. The daughter saw our booth a local holiday pop up shop and called her mother to come down to the market immediately. They pulled me off to the side and told me the story of their beloved son/brother passing away the year before and how they have been collecting 2015 pennies in his memory. Any penny that they saw on the ground, they always picked it up and if it was a shiny 2015, they would keep it and it would remind them of him, especially on the hard days, it was like a sign from him. They asked me if we could turn those pennies into necklaces for them and have the word BELOVED stamped on them. It was honestly such a privilege. I still keep in touch with this family and have necklaces made for them whenever they find a 2015 penny.
How is The Soteria Initiative directly impacting the lives of your employees?
People often tell me that they are in disbelief that human trafficking exists, let alone that it's happening here in our city. I think there's a disconnect to this issue and I want to remind our customers that behind every one of our products is an actual person. When you purchase for a purpose at The Soteria Initiative, you are investing in a person. You are investing in their craftsmanship. Our engravers take so much pride in their work and it builds up confidence and they take ownership of their work. You are investing in their livelihood. Engravers get paid for every necklace they make, plus an hourly rate for helping out at local markets and events. You are also investing in someone's dream. I never wanted The Soteria Initiative to be the end all be all for someone, but more like a stepping stone. I hope to partner with other businesses and organizations. For example if we have an engraver who wants to pursue their dream of being a teacher, I want to be able to reach out to our network and connections and say hey, we have someone who's worked for us for 6 months, we can vouch for them and they have something on their resume now and experience, do you have an internship, job position, scholarship, etc.
As we continue to grow, my hope is that we will be able to employ more overcomes and be able to provide a steady income for them. To be completely transparent, we are still small and trying to prayerfully and strategically plan for the upcoming months to create more awareness and opportunities to move from supplemental income to be able to provide consistent full time work. I'm so thankful for you guys for taking the time to listen to our story and share it in hopes that others will join our initiative!
We love that you are adding the option of men’s necklaces so they can be a part of this powerful initiative – why was it important to have guys represented in your products?
We want to showcase a diverse community of people who are committed to advocating and fighting against human trafficking- which includes having men represented. I just want to say this, men we need you, we want you to be in these conversations and to take action. I invite you to not just support women in our efforts, but also to take the lead on initiating ideas and advocacy. You have have unique gifts, talents, and a voice in this issue. So often times men are portrayed as the "problem" and/ "perpetrators", but what if we empowered and encouraged men to be apart of the solution and together we can create a culture for change.
You recently collaborated with another ethical company that we absolutely love – Elegantees! What was the inspiration behind your partnership and the necklace you all designed?
Katie is amazing and I'm so inspired by her as a mother and business owner. It was truly a dream to have worked and collaborated with her. I remember getting my first shirt from them a couple of years ago and learning more about her company and just fell in love with their mission And their tees are so flattering and buttery soft too! I've always loved fashion and was so close to going to design school, but I also have a heart for helping people and decided to purse Social Work. Katie was able to combine my two passions so gracefully and use fashion for GOOD- so brilliant. The word she chose to have one their necklace was RESTORE because they are literally restoring lives, one elegant tee at a time. It was really special being able to collaborate with a company that focused on empowering overcomes oversees while we worked with overcomers here locally.
It’s truly inspiring the way your business is directly addressing the issue of sex trafficking. This year, you are also using your voice and fashion to fight trafficking through the Dressember Campaign! Why is this campaign important for you to be a part of, and what are some of your goals during December?
Dressember is one of my favorite times of the year ! Dressember embodies creativity, collaboration, and community, aka everything I care so deeply about. This is my second year doing Dressember. It's amazing how something simple as wearing a dress is able to change the world and make a huge impact. That is the same heart beat I have for Soteria, that something so small as a penny can carry so much power, meaning, and worth. I also think it's a great way for people to engage in a conversation about a really hard topic, so many times I get asked about my necklace or why the heck I'm wearing a dress every single day and I'm like oh, let me tell you why ! It's been really awesome sharing Dressember with our engravers as well and seeing them get excited and passionate about being an advocate too.
And like I mentioned before, I love the idea of using fashion for good, if I could wear dresses for the rest of my life, I think I would, especially if it had pockets.
One of my personal goals is to raise enough money to cover the cost of therapy. As a social worker, I understand how important aftercare services are. It's also been great having a team through Soteria's platform, our goal is to raise enough to fund a rescue mission. And just as an added incentive, anyone who donates to anyone on the Soteria Squad is automatically entered to win a necklace!
** Interested in learning more about Khue and her amazing business? Visit her website, Instagram and Facebook page. We love her intentional and creative way to address the issue of trafficking -- she is truly making a difference, and we are so thankful!**