For the first hour, a gathering of about 160 Fort Worth folks on November 15 ticked all the boxes for a standard nonprofit fundraiser: a cool venue (The Brik), signature cocktail (French 75, ooh la la), tiny passed apps (delicious deviled eggs), a DJ playing cool beats, step-and-repeat photo backdrop, and Instagram-able decor.
But then party host and nonprofit founder Melissa Ice took the stage. She introduced a topic that was new, different, and likely a little uncomfortable for guests: the problem of sex trafficking in Fort Worth. It's an issue that's "pervasive" and "multifaceted," she said. And she spoke from first-hand knowledge.
In 2013, Ice started an organization called The Net, which helps victims of trafficking, as well as refugees and people experiencing homelessness. Each month, the organization hosts 27 events that provide jail outreach, meals, support groups, and more for sex trafficking victims.
The purpose of this gathering was to launch a brick-and-mortar extension of The Net, a boutique called The Worthy Co. — and to generate excitement for its mission.
Ice laid out her organization's goals and plans to a crowd that included Fort Worth notables Eva Walker, Sarah Bowden, Christy Dunaway Smith, Paul and Harriet Harral, Meggan and Blake Panzino, Kari Seher, Carly Burson, Tara Warren, Charla Corn, Holland Sanders, Alex Cambora, Karolam Ramirez, Belinda Marshall, Jennifer Kieta, Misty Davis, Jackie Snyder, Vanessa Bouche, Brad Hancock, Sara Scheideman, and Hannah Witten.
Although The Worthy Co. quietly rolled out in April — selling jewelry, T-shirts, and hand-poured candles online — Ice and her partners have bought an old, two-story building on Magnolia Avenue and are seeking the public's assistance to get it operational.
To date, they have raised more than $250,000 through individual gifts and support of groups like the Sapphire Foundation, North Texas Community Foundation, and TCU’s Nature of Giving class. They will need $600,000 in total funds to open by fall 2019. Party guests were given an opportunity to pledge support or contribute in other ways.
Once it's up and running, The Worthy Co. boutique will provide survivors of sex trafficking meaningful employment, with 100 percent of every purchase going back to them.
The idea, Ice told the audience, came from the frustration that her team feels when they help a woman recover from abuse and exploitation — including completing a substance abuse program, reuniting with her family, and addressing trauma in counseling — but then she can't find employment.
"The Worthy Co. aims to create a self-sustaining social enterprise that brings locally crafted, design-inspired home and fashion goods to socially conscious consumers," company materials further explain.
Right now the organization works from a 300-square-foot church classroom to produce about 150 candles a week, Ice says. Their 2019 plans include hiring and serving more women across North Texas, adding more products to The Worthy Co. line, and creating wholesale opportunities. Their goal is for survivors to work not just in production, but in other roles such as marketing and distribution.
"Each product purchase from The Worthy Co. paves the way for more women to come off of the street and into recovery," Ice says.
The ground floor of the two-story building, she says, will feature The Worthy Co.’s locally crafted candles, apparel, and jewelry, as well as production space. The Worthy Co.’s employee headquarters will be located on the second story.
The store also will have Fort Worth’s first candle studio, where groups can mix and mingle while creating their own custom candles alongside The Worthy Co.’s team.
At the party, philanthropic expert Salah Boukadoum shared his experiences with "social entrepreneurship," having sold his tech company and started Soap Hope, a company to help lift women out of poverty. He explained the difference between the work The Net does with Worthy Co. and something like a food bank or homeless shelter, which serve a meal or provide a bed.
"What The Net has done is so much deeper than that because they transform a life," he said from the stage. "That is a very powerful activity to undertake and a very challenging one, because it takes years to do that, and it requires an incredible amount of patience and risk-taking."
Ice thinks the women they serve in Fort Worth are worth the risk of launching a new retail venture.
"I want my daughters to see a city that says no more," she said from the stage. "That says, yeah, these women may have experienced this at one point, but we're going to fight for them, we're going to advocate for them, we're going to provide [an] opportunity for them that might not have existed before. And so, we're doing this thing."