In the summer of 2000, Bill Leep, co-founder of Better Way Imports, took a trip to Bangladesh, in order to evaluate a business in the capital city of Dhaka. This business, Dimensions, sells and services generator sets, which are needed to compensate for unreliable power due to the poor infrastructure of the area. A couple from New Zealand started Dimensions in 1990 with the intention to help the local peoples of Bangladesh, providing dignity through meaningful work instead of just a handout. This concept made a significant impression on Bill, as did the living conditions in Bangladesh. The thought of living in a place with so much poverty and corruption all around was as appalling as it was oppressive, yet Bill could not shake his desire to help the poor people of that area.
While on his trip to Bangladesh, Bill made a connection that later proved to be providential. Also present at the meeting to evaluate Dimensions was John Osborn, a gentleman from New Zealand whose purpose was to place ventures similar to Dimensions in poorer parts of the world. A couple years, Bill and John bumped into each other at a business conference where John gave Bill a pamphlet from one of the business ventures he was working on. The company, Freeset Bags, produced jute bags in Calcutta, India, providing jobs for former prostitutes. Bill’s passion to help remained, as did his apprehension to live in a place like the red light district of Calcutta. How to reconcile these disparate desires? This is where Better Way Imports was born.
Though confident in his ability to import the products, Bill was lost when it came to marketing. Fortunately, his sister, Maribeth VerStrate, had some experience in sales and marketing. The story of the women of Calcutta moved her to do something as well. She immediately recognized the opportunity to make a significant impact on people’s lives, even in a place far from her own community. Mari agreed to develop the marketing aspect of the business and her skills were essential to the development of Better Way Imports. After a short test of the marketability of the Freeset jute products, Bill and Mari pooled their skills, and in the summer of 2004, Better Way Imports was legally established.
In 2005, Bill married Joanna Rutgers and she too joined the Better Way Imports team. Fascinated by the story of Freeset, Joanna took over the marketing responsibilities at Better Way Imports after a visit to India. Her skill and determination has made Better Way Imports what it is today (see Joanna’s own story).
Bill and Joanna’s vision is to provide a better way of helping people. By supporting meaningful jobs, Better Way Imports seeks to provide not only a permanent way out of poverty and oppression, but also to support hope, dignity, and new life.
Joanna took her own journey to Calcutta in October 2005. The city itself is overwhelming. The smells, the noise, the traffic, the trash, the homeless people every couple of feet on the sidewalks. That is the reality of Calcutta and what Kerry and Annie Hilton (the founders of Freeset) and their employees deal with every day. Joanna was in Calcutta for a mere 4 days and was so desperate to leave. She learned a great deal of respect for the Hiltons, who have chosen to live there.
While in Calcutta, Kerry Hilton took Joanna, and her husband Bill, on a walk through the Sonagacchi, a red-light district in Calcutta. Though very apprehensive to go, but it was an experience she’ll never forget, nor ever want to relive. The neighborhood itself is just that: a place made up of apartments and a few shops. It was full of winding streets too narrow for a car to drive through, and there were children running around.
But it was also full of girls, literally lined up shoulder to shoulder for what seemed like miles. Some were dressed in typical Indian garb and looked like any other woman in Calcutta, but many were dressed in Western clothes, with lots makeup and jewelry on–not like she’d seen anywhere else in India. The few who were not hanging their heads had a look in their eyes that Joanna will never forget. Without words, they communicated that they wanted to be doing anything else. But if they wanted to survive another day without receiving a beating, they would stand in line and take each customer– up to 20 per night –that came their way.
As she passed through the crowds, the men filling the streets, she was shocked and horrified at the reality of what she saw. Her heart broke for these women, and continues to each time they come to mind. It is the motivation to work harder at her ‘bag business’, finding more markets here in the States so that she and Bill can help more women thousands of miles away.
For that is the beauty of Freeset. They employ former sex slaves, giving them an alternate means of income. Joanna actually met the women who work for Freeset and got to hear their stories. Many of them were younger than she expected, though some were in their 40s and 50s. They were ordinary, working women, who’d been given a new lease on life and it showed! The ladies work 5 days a week in a clean, respectable place with people that truly care for them. They work from 10 to 7, a choice the girls made because many of them have small children to care for in the morning.
Each day begins and ends with devotions by the Production Manager, a local Indian woman. One morning each week, Annie Hilton teaches reading, writing, and basic math to the women so they are better able to function in the world outside the brothels they once knew. On Wednesday evenings, the Hiltons open their apartment to whoever wants to stay for a time of Bible Study, singing, or just talking about their life, past and present. Many of the girls have shared horrors that they’d experienced at the hands of madams, customers, and even husbands who forced them to work the ‘trade’ for income. A typical transaction in the ‘trade’ would earn the women less than $1.00 and their madam kept about 75% of that. If they were fortunate, they had enough money to buy a small bag of rice to feed themselves and their children for the day. The income they used to receive, though, is nothing compared with what they earn as Freeset employees. With enough income to feed themselves and their family, as well as a job that has dignity and worth, these women are given a new life.
In Joanna’s own words, “I know I’m making a difference. I’ve seen it.”