Almost 20 years ago, Holly Christine Hayes sat on a bathroom floor in Boston and cried like she had never cried before. She cried out for God to help her, to provide her a sanctuary from the life that she was in.
Today, Hayes is providing that sanctuary for women like herself, women who need a chance to rebuild their lives, a chance that she was given through a job shining shoes.
In a two-story white house on East Cesar Chavez Street, the 12 women employed by Sanctuary Project are creating and marketing jewelry that symbolizes things that provide sanctuary: branches, church windows, marble pillars.
The business itself is a sanctuary: giving women their first job after being sexually trafficked, which Hayes defines as being made to perform a commercial sex act by force, fraud or coercion.
Since Hayes, 41, founded Sanctuary Project in February 2018, the business has given 20 women more than 10,000 hours of employment, but more importantly, Hayes says, it’s given them “a safe place to land,” a place to start “a life of recovery,” “where they can start to pursue their dreams.”
At Sanctuary Project, they are able to work in a safe place and for themselves.
Sanctuary Project has attracted national attention. In late October, Target’s website began to sell Sanctuary Project designs. It’s a bit of a different line for Target with prices ranging from $22 to $58 instead of their typical $8-to-$30 range for jewelry.
“They understood our vision,” Hayes says, to create something beautiful, of value, and to have women who didn’t feel their own self-worth begin doing the healing to feel it.
What it means to be trafficked
Sanctuary Project finds survivors through connections at the Travis County Jail, local nonprofit organizations and the few shelters for victims of trafficking Central Texas does have.
Before COVID-19, Hayes was teaching classes in the jail, and sometimes women didn’t even realize they were being trafficked by their boyfriend, husband or other family member. Once Hayes shares her own journey and what it means to be trafficked, she says, “they realize they were trafficked. The tears flow.”
Hayes herself didn’t really understand what was happening to her when she began to be trafficked, and her story is not what many people might think of when they think about someone who has been trafficked.
She grew up in the San Francisco area with two parents who were college professors. As a kid, she says, she grew up in a home that was safe and happy.
At an after-school program, though, she was sexually abused when she was 4 to 6 years old, she says. “It left a wound,” she says.
By middle school, Hayes began acting out. When she was 14 and a freshman in high school, she went to a party, got drunk, did drugs and was raped by three different boys.
“Everything shifted in my identity and self-worth,” she says. “I saw myself as a party girl and a slut. I didn’t see myself as a victim. I thought I had made these choices.”
Drugs and alcohol became her way to deal with her fears and night terrors. “I actually felt relief,” she says, when she was drunk or high.
By 15, she was drinking and doing drugs every day. By 16, she was doing crystal meth and had dropped out of high school, but she did get her GED.
By then her parents had divorced. Her mother cut her off, and she went to live with her father.
She kept getting into dangerous situations and choosing bad relationships, looking for someone who would take care of her. She met her trafficker, whom she thought of as a boyfriend, when she was 19. He encouraged her to cut off all of her relationships with friends and family.
About a year into the relationship, he suggested she trade sex for money with people he would set up. Her drug problem, though, eventually made her unreliable.
He kicked her out, and she became homeless at age 21. By then she had moved to Boston to study musical theater. She slept on people’s couches or would go to bars and nurse a drink until she would pick up a man to buy her drinks and take her to his home. She wore fancy clothes that she shoplifted to look good from afar, but she realizes now that up close she probably looked dirty.
“I knew how to work the fact that I looked like a normal college girl,” she says.
Then on Feb. 10, 2001, she found herself on the floor of a public bathroom when she started to cry. “I hadn’t cried in years,” she says. She cried out for God to help her, even though at the time she didn’t consider herself “a God person.”
That night she went up to a man who told her he didn’t drink or get high, but he did share his whole recovery story. He had been sober for three years.
“He helped me get into a recovery program,” she says. “It felt like a miracle.”
It took time. She went to daily meetings and was able to talk a former roommate into letting her stay on her couch. When she was 30 days sober, she was able to reconnect with her mother.
She got back into class and graduated from college.
She still has a sponsor, and she still sponsors people. “We all have something to heal from,” she says.
One of her first jobs sober was working for a shoe shining business back in San Francisco that hired only people in recovery.
“It was the first job where I felt safe,” she says. “It was the perfect starting place for me.”
While shining shoes in an office building, she met people in real estate who mentored her and encouraged her to get her real estate license.
The woman who didn’t consider herself “a God person” later found a recovery community in a church in San Francisco and then spent three years in Paris working for a church. In Paris, she would spend time in sanctuaries of some of Europe’s grand churches. The marble, the stone, the windows inspired her.
During that time she also reconnected with Jeff Hayes, whom she had known earlier, during a trip back to San Francisco. The friendship grew into something more, and they got married. They moved to Austin in 2017 after he got a job here.
Building Sanctuary Project
Austin was the start of something new for Holly Hayes. With no prior jewelry making experience, she jumped in and began building Sanctuary Project in her kitchen. “I taught myself by watching YouTube,” she says.
She also was volunteering at Travis County Jail, which is where she found her first workforce. When the project started 2 1/2 years ago in her kitchen, it was just a couple of women she met at the jail, she says.
Now when she’s hiring women for the job training program, she’s looking for women with a sense of gratitude instead of entitlement. “We have to train humility,” she says. “When you come to recovery, you’re broken and at bottom. You can go up from there.”
The entry-level job isn’t glamorous on purpose: They start by putting together jewelry such as earrings onto hooks or pendants on chains. Then they move into packaging and processing orders. “It’s a really low bar for entry,” Hayes says.
They work for three to six months, usually about eight hours a week. “The rest of the time they are working on themselves and healing,” she says.
Most of the women are either living in a safe house or with supportive family members. Hayes tries to make sure they are not feeling the pressure of rent, which might make them more likely to return to their trafficker.
Sanctuary Project teaches life skills, provides mentorship, coaches the women on recovery and gives them the experience of working a job and a job reference. Most women who have been trafficked have a criminal background because of being sold for sex and/or substance abuse.
“There’s not a lot of companies that will employ women with a record,” Hayes says.
Sometimes it doesn’t work out and they go back to their trafficker. Hayes stays in touch with them and waits for them to be ready. She practices the tough love that she knows she herself needed.
Mostly, there are successes. They get their first full-time job or go back to school.
She knows someone is ready to move on when they start asking for more hours, and then Sanctuary Project helps them figure out what might be next.
A few of the women who started working in the job training program have gone on to work on the leadership team as full-time employees running the business.
Because Sanctuary Project provides a safe place, all of its employees are women, and none of them have been traffickers, which can sometimes happen with women who have been trafficked.
“We create a place where you can cry,” Hayes says.
Designing a bigger sanctuary
When she and the women talk about design, they talk about what the word “sanctuary” means to them. She goes back to the feeling she had in those churches in Europe, which inspired her to create earrings that look like cathedral windows or marble pillars.
Some of the women find sanctuary in nature, she says, which inspired the branches collection.
Hayes also finds sanctuary at home, which is a property just outside Austin near Dripping Springs. She and Jeff now have a 1-year-old daughter, Havana, which means breath of grace.
They also have goats, chickens, Scottish Highland cows, and two Great Pyrenees. There’s a vineyard on the property, which is still too young to make wine.
Having Havana has softened her, Hayes says. “The things that used to stress me out don’t anymore.”
Having a daughter also reminds her of the preciousness of a young girl and the wound she experienced early. “I’ll be faced with it her whole life, every day,” but “I choose to be a force of light in the world.”
When she’s at the Sanctuary Project offices, she looks around all the time and thinks, “It is working …. I see the doors opening.”
They’re trying to plan now for what Target could bring. Every time they take a big leap and hire more people, the demand expands to be there.
“I really believe people are behind women recovering,” she says.
She sees this work as more than just the women who get their first jobs. “We shed light on exploitation,” she says. “We want to change the narrative.”
For her, the big vision is to one day add a residential shelter that helps women who are older. Many of the current shelters focus on children who have been trafficked.
She also would like to have a factory where the jewelry components would be made by women who are survivors and then sent to Austin, where the women who put them together are also survivors.
Sanctuary Project is “a place where they can be in community with other survivors,” she says.