College Students Aid Kids in Calcutta’s Red Light District

Walla Walla College Chapter of Amnesty International members, from left: (front) Christa Walikonis, Kathleen Erwin, Charis Walikonis, Jenilyn Drake, Janelle Walikonis; (back) Boris Brajnikoff, Rachel Davies, Hans Fly, Ben Morris and Kenneth Erwin. Not pictured: Becca Parshall.Source: Walla Walla College

[March 19, 2007] The Walla Walla College (WWC) chapter of Amnesty International knows what can happen when a small group has a big idea to share.

It started last year when Rachel Davies, a senior theology major, served as a student missionary in Calcutta, where she was able to interact with the children of prostitutes in the city’s infamous red light district. There she met Urmi Basu, who had started an organization called "New Light" to help these children find a better life. The organization soon expanded to also provide a home for older girls who otherwise would have eventually been forced into prostitution. The home, named Soma in honor of a little girl born out of prostitution who died needlessly, is dedicated to protecting, educating, and empowering these children while offering them the hope of a new life.

However, Davies soon learned that the lease on Soma home was about to expire and the organization needed to raise $10,000 to purchase the building.

That’s when Davies approached Jen Drake, a senior history major and president/founder of WWC’s Amnesty International chapter, about taking on the project. Drake started making plans and called a chapter meeting early in January. "More than 25 people crammed into my small basement apartment, and serious excitement filled the air," said Drake. "One idea led to another, and Project Red Light fell into place."

The WWC Chapter showed the film “Born Into Brothels” once in mid-January and the students, faculty and staff in attendance emptied their wallets, giving over $600 that evening. A second showing had students crammed in the aisles, lying on the floor, propped against each other, and spilling out into the hallways, where they stood for two hours watching the film of children in the brothels fighting to change their hopeless circumstances. That night, attendees gave over $1,500.

"I was amazed," said Drake. "In less than a week, we had over $4,000, mostly donated by students." Student-led worship service, The Awakening, took on the project, as did the college’s Improv Church, the girls’ dorm, several Sabbath School classes and the Sunnyside Church in Portland, Ore.

Amnesty International members and other volunteers kept plugging away at their own projects—handing out buttons and informational fliers in the college hallways, making their own “Stop Child Prostitution” t-shirts, writing letters to the children of Soma, and holding their own fundraising events.

In a month-and-a-half, the WWC Chapter had a tremendous impact on the campus, and on the children in Calcutta. More than $10,000 has been raised and funds keep pouring in to ensure that Soma home will be taken care of in the future and to sponsor children to attend.

"Thirty-six children have the chance at a life away from prostitution," said Drake, "and now I have faith in the passion of a unified body of hearts that rise up and take action."

To find out more about Project Red Light, contact Amnesty_International@wwc.edu or (509) 527-2656.