Thursday, November 27, 2008


Traumatised girls EMERGE with dazzling skills
Whitney Johnson's mission in Lanka gets GLOBAL attention

Beautiful and colourful beads put together made the string sparkle and the nimble fingers which meticulously picked the tiny beads brought a smile to the face of the mentor as she sprinkled hope and meaning to the lives of hundreds of women thrashed by gloomy circumstances.

Whitney-Johnson put a smile on faces of those she had never met previously

Alia Whitney-Johnson first started making beaded jewellery when she was seven years old. Five years later, she transformed that hobby into a full-fledged business, and at 19 she turned her small childhood business into an international nonprofit organisation, empowering young Sri Lankan mothers made pregnant through rape and incest.

As a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Whitney-Johnson visited the college's Public Service Centre looking for summer opportunities. A short time later, she was on a plane headed to Sri Lanka to do tsunami relief work with people she had never met.

During her time in Sri Lanka, she visited a shelter for young mothers - some of them as young 10 or 12 - whose children were the products of incest or rape. That visit turned what was supposed to be just a summer activity into Whitney-Johnson's lifelong work and mission.

"I knew beading was something the girls could do regardless of their age, regardless of their education," she said. "I taught one beading class, and I honestly thought that would be it. Two days later, the girls' counsellor came back to me and said, 'There's a girl that's so proud of the necklace she made, she won't even take it off to shower.' That inspired Whitney-Johnson to do more, and she started the nonprofit organisation Emerge Global. Its goal is to help these girls - who often have been denied formal education, cast out of their families and literally locked away - gain confidence, respect and self-reliance.

Johnson's efforts shined as she was named one of 32 Rhodes Scholars from across the United Kingdom.

"For me, the incredible thing about this recognition is, it's brought a lot of attention to the challenges these girls are facing in Sri Lanka," said Whitney-Johnson, 22.

"These different awards have really helped me shed light on this issue that is really important to me." The girls make jewellery, which is sold both in Sri Lanka and in America. The proceeds are put into savings accounts for the young mothers, which they can access when they turn 18. Three years after Emerge Global first started, more than 60 girls ages 10-18 have benefited from the programme, and the participants are now teaching other young girls, giving them a chance to mentor each other and establish their own community.

Whitney-Johnson and sparkling creativity

The organisation also talks to the girls about their goals and ambitions, and works with them to help accomplish them. There are currently 45 girls in the programme. By the end of next year, Johnson would like to see that number reach 85.

"I studied environmental engineering because I was interested in satisfying fundamental human needs," she said. "I was really interested in access to clean water. That's kind of the same reason I started Emerge Global. These kids have been so broken, they have really lost the ability to have their own dreams, to have their own goals.

"They are all linked through my interest in international development and helping people create their own vision of the future." After graduating from MIT in January with a degree in civil and environmental engineering, Whitney-Johnson will move to England to begin studying international development at Oxford University.

The Rhodes Trust pays all college and university fees, provides a stipend to cover expenses while living in Oxford and all trips and transport to and from England, an estimated $500,000 per year, according to Elliot F.Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust.

She hopes to use both her degrees and the contacts she will make being a Rhodes Scholar to turn Emerge Global into a truly international organisation. She also wants to build a community and school for the girls in the organisation.

"I see her as using it as a way of not empowering herself as much as making a better world for everybody," said John Johnson, Whitney-Johnson's father. "I know she sees it the same way."

Whitney-Johnson is also a Truman Scholar. In 2007, she was recognised as one of Glamour Magazine's Top 10 College Women.


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