In every card, a story of hope: The Paper Project Inc.

We run a social business called The Paper Project Inc

We employ women survivors of abuse, victims of oppression or women escaping flesh trades like prostitution or trafficking. These women are our precious card makers. We make handmade greeting cards.

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Our cards have more soul and story than that musical e-card you sent out for the holidays. They are likely more special than the last card you saw your neighborhood bookstore. Our cards make it to thousands of stores across the United States through our partners at Good Paper. Recently our work has also made it to Australia and Germany too. But that isn’t the special part.

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People have often commented that my job must be sad or depressing – because of the history of abuse or oppression in my worker’s lives. If you think my job is gloomy too, you are focusing on the wrong side of the story. In fact, my job is the exact opposite of sad and depressing. 

At The Paper Project Inc., we focus on the hope of a life renewed. And we start with a simple craft. This craft provides a stable livelihood and a community in which to grow. 

A full life can still be led by those who have been broken.

I love to share the story of our card maker Esther*:

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Esther used to wander the streets of Metro Manila. She had been abused in the past, had no contact with her parents, and for a long time didn’t even have a copy of her birth certificate. With scarce opportunities for livelihood, having barely started high school, Esther now turned to vices for survival. One of our partner organizations referred Esther to us after seeing her waste her days away, hanging out at street known for gamblers, pick-pockets, pimps and prostitute pick-ups.

We welcomed Esther into our workshop where she learned how to cut and assemble cards out of handmade abaca paper. The training process is actually not as easy as it sounds. The individual parts of the card design can be very small or intricate. A card maker must learn the precise art of cutting all sorts of shapes that were sometimes easily the size of your tiniest toenail. Edges have to be smooth. Assembly has to be accurate. We pride ourselves in high quality craftsmanship. You’ll see it across all the products we create.

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You never know how each new trainee will take to the work. Not long after her start with us, Esther was overheard on the street by her social worker, speaking confidently and excitedly about her new job. She boasted to friends, but in the most earnest way possible, about her work in a nearby city’s business district. She was hopeful and full of excitement.

She was talking to her friends on the same street where other women continue to trade their bodies for their next meal.

In her new community at The Paper Project, Esther bloomed. In less than eight weeks, she was given the privilege to train other women in cardmaking. She was even earned the responsibility to manage the quality control of our completed cards. Today she continues to thrive in our card making workshop.

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Just having a basic uniform transformed the way Esther carried herself. Having a place she needed to be at, where attendance was taken and where she had assignments to complete – this transformed her sense of daily purpose. A pay check at the end of two weeks and women to fellowship with – these transformed her lifestyle and self-worth.

In every card, a story of hope. And hope grows.

Maybe one day you will also hold in your hand a card lovingly made by one of our beautiful women. 

Like The Paper Project on Facebook or follow us on Instagram

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*Pseudonym.

Oh so you’ve got a career now?? Cute.

So you have seriously started the career path,” he said, “*insert smiley with tongue out hereYou’re one of the lucky ones.” This came from a friend I had met in DC last summer while doing a program in development project management. Interestingly enough, I am applying much of what I learned that summer, today. The quick chat I had with this friend was not only affirming, but it pushed me to look at my present position, not just my work position but my general position in the world today, from a different perspective – one that even more deeply appreciates the incredible spheres of influence I find myself in.

I have never thought of my life or my future from a career-based perspective. I don’t think I’ve ever jumped into an opportunity or a passion with a career as the end goal or next step in mind. Heck, I decided to major in art in college just because I wanted to. I honestly walked in with no plans to pursue art as a profession  I just wanted to be at college doing the things I enjoyed. (Thank God for supportive parents!) I had a little experience with drawing, but barely any with painting, and certainly none in sculpture or film photography, but I jumped excitedly into this fresh field that I had secretly always wanted to be a part of since I was a little girl. I loved it. But never really felt I’d be making a career out of all of it. It wasn’t until a few months ago, close to graduation and with work going up in the college gallery, that the desire to someday be a professional artist, exhibited and selling work internationally, really made itself clear to me. But that is a whole different topic, for a different time in my life!

What I know is this – I have simply stuck to pursuing the things I enjoy and the things that fire me up from deep down. And the things I not only enjoy but discover I am good at, these are the things I don’t give up. In my experience, these are also the things that bring the most joy to the people around me. Like my dancing, my drawing and even my writing.

I understand, however, that it is an incredible privilege to be able to do what I love and to pursue these without judgment, bias or threat of economic instability. Not everyone comes from a  background (familial, socio-economic,  or cultural) that allows them to simply study what they want. And even more, to study without pay — for which I am eternally grateful and will forever pay forward.

I remember feeling quite insulted and defensive when people would ask about what I intend to study (back in the years before college), and then quickly formulate a career path for me, or suggest jobs I might be able to get post-graduation so that I won’t starve. After all, all my interests continuously lie in the category of the world’s 10 lowest paying majors/jobs/careers/fields/etc.

I even felt insulted when a professor of mine tried to push me in the direction of minoring in her subject, because I was good at it but also because it would look good on my CV. Lady, those were the only words I needed to drive me away. In my mind I spat at the notion of doing things so that they could appear on my resume or my CV. I was at college to learn, not to build a resume or jump start a career. That is all I’ve ever wanted to do, learn. Friends, you are reading the blog of someone whose first life aspiration was to be a window washer (and later a lawyer, but for very shallow reasons related to title, attire and office space).

When I think of the word career, it feels so tied down to a title, a job description, a specific placement. A suit, even. I think that the way I like to work and live is a bit more fluid than that. I have never simply been saturated in a single line of work, or study. Instead, I find myself to be happiest when I have at my fingertips, a small, but persuasive selection of activities. Perhaps I have thought of my life in from a career based perspective, but one of a mini-spectrum of careers. And I just never thought to use the word career.

People change careers multiple times in their lives and often wear different hats all at once. Even in my studies, I pursued more than a single passion. I was a Studio Art Major and a Dance Minor, fulfilling some important leadership positions in our college dance community. Towards the end of college, I also identified as a poet.

So now that I have graduated and am working my first full-time job, where do you think my education has sent me?

This little artist/poet/dancer, is now waist deep in the development sector in her home country, the Philippines. My main thrust in the direction home, after having lived away for so long, was to manage the non-profit organization I founded some years back (more about that soon!). We serve children and youth at risk.

I now work full time at a social enterprise that provides livelihood training and jobs for those with very limited opportunities. Among our workers are survivors of abuse, human trafficking and prostitution.

I’ve also been doing math, and brushing up on my economics.

(If you know me well, this when you catch yourself laughing. AT me.)

From the outset, it is a little funny to think that an art major and dance minor who loves to write poetry,  is working in the business and development sector straight out of her undergraduate studies. So far, it seems to be working to my advantage, stepping into the development equation with fresh artsy eyes, but with a substantial bulk of development and leadership experience under my belt. I’m not exactly academically equipped for some things at work, but this also means that I have not been brainwashed or overeducated by this economic theory or that development case study. In fact, somebody I met last weekend told me that he was excited to see how I would integrate art and development, and that he could tell from talking to me that I had lots of experience in both those areas (What affirming words for me to hear!! I cannot wait to share what I’ve got up my sleeve when it comes to development and the creative arts.) The best I can do is to approach my work from a very human perspective, after all, the human element is my most valued element in my workplace – it is why I do what I do. I’m after human development.

So I try to walk in each day with an open mind, a generous heart and a teachable spirit. Every day I live out important lessons I have learned both inside and outside of the classroom – from positions of leadership and responsibility – and those today, as I have always anticipated, are the experiences that really count. Each day I am learning more and more.

Thankfully, I have not been thrown into the dungeons of economic lions, all hungry to devour every creative bone and muscle in my body,  despite working in a substantially economic-y, business-y environment.  Rather, I am learning to be a lithe and friendly panther in a neighboring space.

Okay, so I don’t know where this panther metaphor is going, but I just kind of like panthers… and pigs.

On some days, I am honestly just so overwhelmed by the amount of good that can be done in this world. Earlier this week, I spent some time at the office reading about the big and small moves that individuals are doing to end poverty around the world.  Sigur Ros accompanied my thoughts through my earphones, as the workplace was buzzing with busy women making cards (more about the actual nature of our business soon).

I paused my reading to enjoy the feeling. I was thinking about the future of development, a  field from which I simply cannot keep my heart away.  My insides just filled up, in a way much like goosebumps but in your blood, and with more weight, not just airy elation. With more reality. And more grit.

When I think hard about it, right now there is no other job I want more than mine.