Barbara Murray used to come all the way from Brooklyn to go to the Newport Mall in Jersey City. She didn’t shop; she shoplifted.
So it is more than a little ironic that in recovering from a life of crime, she should return to Newport Mall as part of an effort to rebuild her life.
She and other women came to the mall last week to help demonstrate the results of the Same Sky America initiative, a program in which she and other women make restitution by creating and selling bracelets, in conjunction with needy women a half a world away. As they make the bracelets, they learn productive business skills that will help them escape the world of the street.
The press conference included former Gov. Jim McGreevey, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, and philanthropist Francine LeFrak, the founder of the Same Sky program (and a member of the family that built Newport).
The Same Sky program originally served as a way for HIV-affected women in Rwanda to create and sell bracelets, but this year the program expanded to women in Jersey City.
Also at the event were other women from Integrity House’s reentry programs. Integrity House is a local non-profit organization that helps men and women overcome substance abuse.
At the conference, the women showed off their bracelet-creating abilities. Same Sky America seeks to give women in the United States a second chance as they work to restore their confidence and rebuild their lives. Their pilot project is in Jersey City working with women who have recently been released from correctional facilities.
Elizabeth Lang, a market consultant to the program, said jewelry made by the women in both Jersey City and in Rwanda is sold via website and at events.
Same Sky America provides the women with the training and employment to hand-bead the Same Sky Benefit Collection. The women earn a sense of self-dignity and confidence as they work to realize their talents and face the challenges of re-acclimating to society.
From Africa to America
LeFrak started the program in 2009 to help women who are recovering from the genocide in Rwanda. Same Sky began as a trade-not-aid initiative that employs African women living with HIV/AIDS as artisans. It provides a platform to sell in the global marketplace. These women earn 15 to 20 times the average Sub Saharan wage to hand crochet jewelry.
The program has branched out into America to help women avoid a life of crime.
Murray, who entered the Integrity House ex-offender program in July, said she is committed to the program because she knows that she can’t “beat the street” by continuing to live a life of stealing and drugs.
“I know I can make it in society,” she said. “I was raised good. But somewhere I took a wrong turn.”
Currently, she works as a home aide and is attending school to get license as a CNA, which is an aide who can administer drugs and do other health-related activities.
“A CNA makes more money,” she said.
Currently a resident of Jersey City, Murray said she had a lot of help from Integrity House and from people like “Miss Hanna” and “Miss Kelly” inside and outside the jail, who steered her to the programs she needed.
“By doing this, I feel like I’m helping somebody else,” she said.
Nearly a dozen women from the program appeared with Fulop, McGreevey, LeFrak, members of the City Council and others to show off their wares.
One hundred percent of all net proceeds from the sale of Same Sky jewelry go to employing more women artisans and expanding the program. Same Sky jewelry is worn by many celebrities including Meryl Streep, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Queen Latifah, Goldie Hawn, Jessica Alba, Ben Affleck, Akon, and Victor Cruz, among others.
Coleman is supporter
Councilwoman Diane Coleman was the first to purchase the bracelets, spending $300 that will go to employing women artisans involved in the program.
Coleman said many of the women came through “The Most Excellent Way of Life Center” halfway house in Jersey City run by Rev. Gloria Walton.
“Mayor Fulop and former Governor McGreevey were looking for a way to help women transition once they get out of prison,” Coleman said. “I’m very excited to support reentry programs.”
McGreevey, who serves as the executive director of the Jersey City Employment & Training Commission, is deeply involved in reentry efforts for ex-offenders and was a minister for drug-addicted female inmates at the Hudson County Correctional Facility for several years.
In officiating over the event, McGreevey’s voice competed with the mall’s holiday music, but drew excited responses from the women involved in the program.
“These women are my family,” he said.
He said that Mayor Fulop’s support of programs like this shows the mayor’s commitment to making certain that everyone in the city benefits from the city’s economic growth.
On Friday, Dec. 13 through Sunday, Dec. 15, from noon to 8 p.m., Same Sky America will make its debut at Newport Centre Mall, where the artisans themselves will be setting up shop to make and sell the Benefit Bracelets that they hand-craft for Same Sky. The Benefit Bracelets will be sold individually for $19.99 or as a set of three for $50.00. Special orders can be made on-site. Same Sky’s other collections will also be available for sale.
“What we hope to do now is teach them real skill building in the marketplace,” said Francine LeFrak. “By providing these women the opportunity to act as sales agents, we are giving them a restored confidence, a heightened sense of responsibility and accountability, and instilling a sense of community within them.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.