“I see a world where we can help to eradicate poverty through educating our young women”
Renee Passell – founder of Do You See What I See
My name is Reneee Passell and I’m an economics teacher from Esperance Senior High School. It is a privilege to be able to share my story about how this organisation was born.
The seeds were planted a long time ago, but started to grow when I was living in Kolkata in 2012. Many women I met there had extraordinary gifts and talents, but because they were born poor those gifts and talents would never be nurtured or encouraged…and their potential would sadly never reached. I saw their amazing potential and that is when I started to build on the idea of helping those women.
Do You See What I See? is about a world where poverty doesn’t stop you from reaching your full potential as a human being.
I see a world where choice and possibility open up through this education. I see a world where forced prostitution is not the only option for a woman purely because she is poor.
As a teacher of 14 years have always felt strongly about the equality of opportunity for all students to access education. I have always felt that helping students believe in themselves and their potential is just as important as learning facts. This has held true in which ever setting I have taught in; whether it be with Aboriginal students in the Australian outback, Nepalese teenagers in Kathmandu, orphans in Kolkata – or the kids I taught in metropolitan Perth
When I was teaching in Perth, I was asked to teach the gifted and talented program. I really wanted to develop a program that gave students the opportunity to extend themselves as human beings through helping others. Hence the Global Citizen- We Can Make a Difference Program was born.
During the 5 years I ran the program, my students devised and carried out a huge variety of projects that made a real difference to the world. When looking at absolute poverty- the kids raised $13,000 for a poor village in Thailand. The students then travelled to see the village and meet the children we sponsored. Another year my students were interested in deforestation and the effects of palm oil plantations, so we went to Borneo and the students saw first-hand what we had been studying in class.
It was during this Global Citizen Program that I began researching the issue of human trafficking. With close to 30 million slaves in the world today – the majority of whom are women and children – it is one of the most horrendous and shocking issues facing humanity. It was, and is, an issue I could not turn away from. As part of the Global Citizen Program students had to raise money, and most importantly, raise awareness for the issue they chose to research. One of the students was giving a presentation on human trafficking and I asked them to find some emotive footage they could include to get the audience interested. What they included was a clip of the organisation – Made By Survivors. A group that helps rescued and vulnerable girls find meaningful employment and hope.
As I watched I knew then and there that’s where I needed to help.
I was always saying to my students that they should give more than just money to a cause – that they should give their time and love. This was my chance to put my words into action.
I took a year off work and headed to India to volunteer for Made by Survivors and another organisation called Destiny. I originally thought I’d be living nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas but when I got to Kolkata they said the plans had changed and I’d be living there. If someone had told me a year before I’d be living in the craziness of Kolkata I would have laughed, but it really goes to show – you will always get what you need – not what you think you want.
My year in Kolkata working with women who had been rescued from sex slavery and young girls who had been orphaned, was the most beautiful experience of my life. To say it opened my heart completely to what real love is, still feels like an understatement and I often say that Kolkata brought out the best possible version of myself. While it is true that some days were hard going, and that there were times I felt I couldn’t stand seeing any more of the poverty that surrounded me, the absolute beauty I saw in the women I worked with, truly changed the way I saw the world.
One of those women was Soma. It was while I was working for Made by Survivors that I met Soma – the jewellery manager who helped train the girls. On one of our many long hot cab rides to work she told me about her vision of opening a community arts centre in her village so her female neighbours could have a chance of employment and a decent life. I was so impressed by the vision to help her community that I agreed then and there to help her raise the money needed for the centre. In a very short time, the money had been raised for a block of land in Kolkata, and the women were being trained in making recycled sari blankets. We had started our organisation and called House of Hearts. When I came back to Perth I held fundraising events throughout the year to raise the rest of the money needed for the building of the centre.
I returned to India last October to present Soma with the money for the House of Hearts building and to see the girls who had become part of my family. It was on this trip that my new idea “Do You See What I See?” was born. I had promised the girls working at Destiny that I would take them on a retreat to the beach once a year. For all of them it is their only holiday of the year. The first time we went was the first time they had even seen the ocean. During the retreat weekends the girls are given the opportunity to create new products or voice ideas about their work place Destiny. In one of the workshops I ran I gave the girls an imaginary scenario about what they would do if they were given a small rental space in the red-light area.
In groups they presented the most amazing ideas. They all had ways of helping their mothers get out of prostitution, helping their disabled friends in the community and educating themselves so they could have better lives. Those young women who had been sold into sex slavery by their fathers or uncles, who had lived through the most horrendous abuse, were the most inspirational and resilient people I had ever met. I could only imagine how much further they could go with more education.
On the same trip, Soma from House of Hearts,f had told me she wanted to go to University and study social work. I asked her how much a degree cost and we worked it out to be around $1000. A thousand dollars I thought! For $ 1000 dollars you could help give someone a future, help their family and their community. And then I thought about all the young women with their strength and resilience – imagine if they had a university education. They could really change the world.
On the plane ride home I thought about what I could do. I have always viewed education as the key to breaking the poverty cycle and I really wanted to link this to breaking the cycle of prostitution in the red light areas of Kolkata. I also thought about how successful the House of Hearts fundraising had been and why so many people wanted to help. People who did donate often commented that they felt very connected to the project and that even though they couldn’t come to India and physically help – they felt like they were part of the picture.
I again wanted the people in my community to feel this special connection to Do You See What I See? Our sponsors will not only pay for their university degree but will also provide a small living wage to the family – this will make up for lost earnings given while she is studying and hopefully ensure she doesn’t drop out during the degree. When the women finish their degree and find employment they will then pay back the money into the fund…. which then enables other young women in the red light area to go through the program also. This way the cycle continues to give back to the community for many generations and the cycle of generational poverty and prostitution can be broken.
What we also hope to achieve with sponsorship, is that it is the women who will be the change agents of their own community.
Too often in developing nations we see experts from the developed world come in and try and impose change from a western perspective, or they come in with skills that are in high demand, stay for a short time and then return to their own country, taking their skills with them. While it is important we have such people giving assistance, to have lasting sustainable change, the community must have their own people being the leaders of change. They need to be trained and educated so they can have the skills necessary to bring change from within.
As I mentioned I also want people in my world – my community to be connected on the most personal level they can be. I know through my conversations I have with you that when given the chance to help others it changes your life too… so I would like people to personally sponsor a young woman, that way you will get to follow her journey and have a close connection. Work places can also sponsor a young woman in a similar field and this will become a great foundation for mentorship through her degree.
Someone once asked me why I care about what happens half way across the world. How can I not? We are all connected simply by being born human. We all live in one world – we all share our global village and we are all human beings who ultimately all want the same things. We in Australia were lucky enough to be born into the part that has wealth, that has decent human rights and that has opportunity for us to realise our potential. With those rights and opportunities I know we can help others around the world realise their potential also. It may not be possible for all of us to move to Kolkata to work in an orphanage but it certainly is possible to do something.