GEAR focuses on community outreach

This year, Westminster’s Gender Equality and Relations club, or GEAR, has teamed up with Atlanta based nonprofit Wellspring Living for a service project to benefit victims of sex trafficking. GEAR, in the past, has simply been a discussion and education based club focused on educating the student body on issues of gender equality and being a place to talk about issues freely.

As the club pivots into more action-based community service ventures, junior Jessica Lao, sophomore Payton Selby, and junior Naima Turbes, the student leaders of the club, have organized the club’s recent service project to write letters and make care boxes for victims of sex and human trafficking.

“We packaged care boxes to be sent out to a shelter for women,” said Selby. “We wrote a bunch of letters and got together toiletries, like lotions and other cute things to send to them for the holiday season to give them support. ”

The letters and toiletries and other small gifts were boxed by club members and also student volunteers and sent to Wellspring Living.

“I think that it’s especially important to do in Atlanta, because we’re the most popular place to have human trafficking in America,” said Selby. “In Atlanta, in Buckhead, and in the airport, that’s where it happens most, and I think that it’s just showing support for people and girls in our community.”

A study conducted by Washington D.C.’s Urban Institute for the U.S. Justice Department found that from 2003 to 2007, Atlanta had the highest revenue made from sex trafficking, with 290 million dollars being the peak in 2007, which is more than Atlanta’s illegal drug and gun trade revenue combined. Atlanta’s large airport and sizable number of conventions and events also contributes to its status as one of the most popular places for human and sex trafficking.

Wellspring Living, the Atlanta based nonprofit organization that GEAR partnered with for this service project, is dedicated to fighting this epidemic in Atlanta, where it seems to be most prevalent. Selby knew that GEAR should choose Wellspring Living in particular over other nonprofits with the same overall mission because of its farreaching impact on the Atlanta community as a whole.

“I think that one [of the reasons] was proximity, and it’s one of the best shelters for women in Atlanta,” said Selby. “The work they’ve done so far, the community-based work, contributed to that decision. They also work with a lot of other shelters in Atlanta, so when you’re helping one you’re helping a bunch of them.”

GEAR also chose Wellspring Living because the organization accepted help from high school students, whereas other women’s shelters have age limits on their volunteers. Faculty advisor to GEAR Reanna Ursin was a key facilitator in the GEAR and Wellspring Living relationship.

“[Partnering with Wellspring Living] was largely through relationships that the leaders already had with the organization, whether they learned about it through a class or through a JanTerm, or someone who had already made donations there,” said Ursin. “Jessica [Lao] did a lot of research and deserves a lot of credit. She and Naima [Turbes] and all the leaders gathered a bunch of information, and Jessica called Wellspring and found out from them what sorts of things they need. We ultimately wanted it to be something that was simple to accomplish that required diligence and effort without the obstacles of background checks.”

The club itself has shifted dynamics this past year into service-based projects and actions instead of discussions and campus-based work. Ursin was more than happy to help the leaders shift the club in a new direction from  a campus focus to stronger Atlanta community outreach.

“When I first started advising GEAR, they did a lot more meeting to discuss things, sometimes to share frustrations, sometimes to encourage or support one another, and this year the leaders made clear that they really wanted to have more of an impact on the community outside of the school and not just student members,” said Ursin. “So they have a number of ideas for service projects, the first one that just concluded was making the care bags women at Wellspring Living, women that have been exploited and are transitioning into a more stable and positive life.”

Lao knew that it was time for a change, as GEAR was struggling to make themselves heard around campus.

“Last year our main thing was we made posts on our Facebook group where we just talked,” said Lao. “We did go to the Women’s March, but [our work] was mostly on campus, and this years leaders’ me, Payton, and Naima, wanted to do more work that would actually make a difference instead of getting us laughed at all over campus. So we’re trying to do more actual volunteer work to make the difference in someone’s life instead of just talking about them.”

The shift into action-based community outreach has been positive so far, as the club’s first project was a resounding success. 

The initial plan was to box at least 10 care bags for Wellspring, but they ended up with over 60 bags. With the success of their first project, GEAR is already looking towards the future for their next project.

“The next project, we’ll see what it’s going to be,” said Ursin. “A lot of club leaders can relate to the fact that you may have great aspirations in terms of what you want to accomplish, but you have to be realistic in terms of time commitment, both on the part of the leaders as well as what members can realistically do, and I feel strongly that we should not make promises to a community organization that we don’t know for sure we can keep, so I think there are more projects such as going to some organizations and putting on a fun activity night, or helping maintain the grounds or clean dorms. There’s also the possibility of going to the capital for Lobby Day, for women’s equality. So right now it’s just up in the air, we have to decide what our next thing’s going to be.”