Freedom Stones founded by ACU grads to fight human trafficking

freedom stones

Leah Jones Knippel, 1999, B.A. in English

Kara Ulmer, 1998, B.A. in Business 
Administration and International Studies

Some are 12-year-old girls who have been prostituted in bars and brothels in downtown Bangkok. Some are young boys who have been forced into the fishing trade on the lakes of Ghana. 

Some are women who know they cannot return to their villages with the stain of prostitution attached to their names. Some are simply people who have never had another choice.

Freedom Stones is there to make sure that second chance is always an option.

We are trying to blend the best of missions, development and business practices. You get people to change themselves; that empowers them.  - Leah Knippel

Ever since she was an undergraduate at ACU, Freedom Stones founder and president Leah (Jones '99) Knippel has had a heart for the oppressed and enslaved. In 1998, while still a student at ACU, she worked with a church planting team and did campus ministry in Chiangmai, Thailand. The experience changed her perspective and re-shaped the way she wanted to help the hurting of the world.

"I loved it so much that I didn't want to go back and finish school," she said.

A year later, after graduation, she went back to become a missionary apprentice. While working with a campus ministry at Chiang Mai University, she encountered students who were prostituting themselves to afford a college education and women who worked in the brothels to send their brothers to school. Their experiences left a mark on Leah. 

Ministry kept calling

Though she went back to Texas to teach English as a Second Language, Leah continued volunteering with Rahab Ministries in Bangkok, Thailand, during winter and summer holidays.  Rahab was one of the first ministries to rescue women out of trafficking and prostitution. Two years later, she became the non-profit's international donor manager.

Though her contract ended at the end of the year, Leah joined World Concern's prevention office and stayed in the region. World Concern, a relief and development agency, helps smaller non-profits in the region improve their resources and reach more members of the at-risk population. Leah's job involved organizing national advocates to teach children and communities about sex traffickers. She worked in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Nepal and the Burma border, encountering daily the ugly reality of sex trafficking and its victims.

"All these experiences taught me to ask 'Where are the gaps? How is this not working for the victims?' " she said. "What we wanted to see were these women going back to their own communities with dignity and respect."

Leah focused her attention on victims' treatment after they were rescued from brothels or sex traffickers. It wasn't enough for her that they had escaped a life of bondage. She wanted to see these men, women and children return to their communities without a social stigma or a future of economic hardship.

"The gaps I saw centered around reintegrating women. I wanted a model that would help a woman re-integrate into society after the trauma she'd been through," Leah said. 

Realizing a Vision

Leah had a vision in mind, but wanted to be sure that she could successfully implement it in the region. To that end, she went back to school at Eastern University and took a master's in International Development. Through research and analysis, she determined that the problem of re-integration was essentially a question of poverty, economics and a lack of education. Women did not have access to capital to start their own businesses and, therefore, found it difficult to lift themselves from the cycle of poverty that made them at-risk for sex trafficking. Leah wanted to break that cycle with the help of several regional organizations who were working in a similar fashion.

"ACU really encouraged me to change the world," she said. "I think it taught me about the human heart. ACU influenced me from an early age. …I really wanted to be a part of that change."

"Can we create an organization that acts as a consultant to these smaller community-based organizations?" she wanted to know. "There were all these steps that needed to happen for women to be sheltered and empowered. We needed to work together to build these better practices."

Through a system that involves transformation of body, mind and spirit, Leah has done just that. Freedom Stones offers victims of sexual trafficking an opportunity to work creating jewelry made from fair-trade materials. The capital they build through their apprenticeship is theirs to use when they graduate from the program. Since Freedom Stones and its partners also offer financial counseling and connections to micro-loans, many victims use the capital they have saved to finance their own small businesses and begin a new life of personal and economic independence.

"We are trying to blend the best of missions, development and business practices," Leah said. "You get people to change themselves; that empowers them." 

Branching Out

Freedom Stones has recently branched out into Ghana, where children are routinely sold to fishermen and forced to work long hours doing difficult manual labor. After they are rescued from bondage, the children are given shelter and the chance to learn a trade via Freedom Stones.

"It builds their confidence," Leah said.

She sees Freedom Stones as a chance to "live the Gospel out loud," a motto she feels was a huge part of her education at ACU.

"ACU really encouraged me to change the world," she said. "I think it taught me about the human heart. ACU influenced me from an early age. …I really wanted to be a part of that change."

Her focus is always on individuals, however, never on an overarching project.

"It's never a top-down approach," she said. "It's very contextualized, very local. We have to work with local people who understand that culture. We come in at the rehabilitation part. We see people as people, and not as projects." 

The Freedom Stones Team

Kara Ulmer, another ACU graduate, is Leah's co-worker and currently serves as the organization's executive director. She and Leah became friends during a Study Abroad program to Oxford, England, in which they both volunteered at the same homeless shelter. In February of 2010, she quit her job at Barclay's to join the team at Freedom Stones.

Another member of the team is Wayne Hester, an Abilene native who served as a mentor to Leah when she was in Thailand working with World Concern. He, too, felt a deep concern for the victims of sex trafficking and wanted to do something to help.

"I was able to see firsthand the issue of human trafficking and really got a heart for the cause itself," he said.

Wayne was intrigued by Freedom Stones because of its unique approach to the problem of trafficking. Through years of ministry and missions work he had traveled to nearly 20 different countries and seen many missions models - but few that addressed the community as a whole. Most tended to focus solely on the spiritual or the physical needs of victims. Leah's vision looked like a different plan.

"It's really a holistic model," he said.

Wayne is currently serving as an executive board member for Freedom Stones, advising on financial and legal matters, giving counsel on non-profit issues, and providing structure and support for the company as a whole. He sees the primary challenge facing the company as gaining more market connections and introducing more consumers to the concept and mission of Freedom Stones.

"We have a quality product and a great cause," he said. 

Future of Freedom Stones

Wayne Hester sees an amazing vision in the model that Leah Knippel and Kara Ulmer have presented in Freedom Stones, and he prays that God will let them fulfill it. But he doesn't believe that the work stops there.

He hopes for an internationally competitive jewelry line that can both empower people and provide a quality product. He also hopes the company can become model for others to follow, a blueprint for the future. And he trusts that with the resources they have and the help they've received, that hope will become reality.

"God uses all types of things. We’ve been amazed," he said.

Leah feels much the same way. She hopes to recruit more interns to the company's internship program, expand the company model to even greater effectiveness, and connect other organizations and businesses in local communities where Freedom Stones members live and work.

In the end, though, there's one overarching message she wants to get across. And coming from the director of an internationally based company that involves multiple countries and a complex vision, it's fairly simple.

"It's really about you asking that person if you can walk beside them as they determine where they want to go," she said.

Wayne Hester would agree.

"The kingdom of God is an interwoven network of miracles waiting to happen."

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