A few years after graduating from college, Rachel Goble made a radical decision. Rather than continue toward a career in marketing and business, she decided to return to the world of her youth: serving the poor. She felt drawn to working for social justice, which had been at the cornerstone of her upbringing.
Today, as the president of The SOLD Project, a nonprofit foundation that helps young girls in Thailand escape sex trafficking, Ms. Goble is passionate about her career, she says. In fact, she's certain that The SOLD Project will be part of her life forever.
Now approaching the five-year mark, The SOLD Project – powered in large part by Goble's relentless drive and determination – has transformed the lives of dozens of young girls (and boys) in northern Thailand's most poverty-stricken region.
To date, The SOLD Project has provided scholarships for 120 young students so they can stay in school and thereby exponentially better their chances of escaping the harmful effects of a life of prostitution.
With almost no other options for earning a living in rural mountain villages, Thai girls often yield to the promises of "older" women, usually about 21 years old, prostitutes who make money to support their drug addictions by recruiting children into prostitution.
These women tell of jobs and money that await the children in the city. A gift as cheap as a cellphone suggests riches and an easy life to these youngsters. Without an education, young girls fall for these false promises, only to wind up in a life on the streets.
The SOLD Project team believes deeply that education is the key to breaking this cycle. That explains why The SOLD Project focuses on prevention.
Goble has discovered that raising money to start programs or offer opportunities to children before they have succumbed to the lure of prostitution has proved difficult.
But facing daunting challenges comes naturally to Goble. She grew up in northern California, where she felt at home with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Her parents, who are committed to working for social justice, brought her from a young age along with them to work for nonprofit groups her dad founded in impoverished places such as Belize. This work instilled in Goble a deep desire to serve the poor, she says. She also has always loved working with children and wanted to advocate for children's rights.
"My childhood was so blessed," she says. "I had no real struggles, but I saw others in the world struggling." She wanted to help.
Goble knew she had a calling to work with young people, but she also wanted to develop her talents in the visual arts. Building on her degree in business with an emphasis in art, she became a professional photographer. Still, she knew that if she wanted to pursue advocacy for children and social justice, she would have to return to school for more education.
Friends suggested attending a seminary, and though she was personally committed to a spiritual life, at first she resisted. Eventually, she found the perfect fit – Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., which had just started a program in cross-cultural studies. Goble had the opportunity to more or less design a program that would give her the freedom to develop her own interests.
Her graduate course work at Fuller sparked an investigation into children at risk, which led Goble to visit India and South Africa to research her capstone project. There, she says, she "listened and learned" about sex trafficking. She found that the funneling of young girls and boys into the sex industry wasn't only about coercion. Much broader forces, such as extreme poverty, underlie the decisions and mistakes young people make.
The real key to stopping the supply of naive children into sex trafficking, she realized, lay in prevention. However, she discovered that most aid groups focus on helping only after a life in prostitution has begun.
In India, Goble once had a conversation with several madams and young prostitutes. When she asked one woman in her early 20s what had brought her there, the young woman told her, "I'm not like you. I don't have opportunities. I can never get out of this despair."
That conversation proved to be a turning point for Goble.
"It made me so angry," she says. "The belief of no alternative starts in the mind and heart. If you break a woman to the point she doesn't believe in herself, you're not going to be able to help her." Addicting a young girl to drugs may initially keep her tied to prostitution, "but if you break the soul of woman, you no longer need drugs," she says.
That harsh fact fueled Goble's desire to find a way to make a difference, to give young girls in poverty different options. After a chance meeting online with another social activist, Rachel Sparks, the two young women met in person in Los Angeles and produced a documentary, "The SOLD Project: Thailand," a collection of short films about child prostitution.
The documentary showed the underbelly of the sex industry, but also delivered a message of hope – that prevention could break this ugly cycle.
Mark Zoradi, former president of the Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group, met the two young women when they approached him about using a Disney studio for a benefit screening of their film, he says. He was so impressed that he wound up coordinating the event. He was also moved that two women so young had such a passion to help others and to bring awareness to the issue.
"I had traveled to Bangkok," Mr. Zoradi says, "and I knew how horrible the situation is there. And I could see that it is much better to prevent rather than to correct."
Zoradi (who's now involved in a new entertainment start-up) says that all the money Goble raises – primarily from individual donors who pay $16 a month to support a student's schooling – goes straight to the nonprofit.
"My wife, Cathy, and I both have been inspired by Rachel. She has done a spectacular job," he says.
One of Goble's fellow filmmakers, Nikole Lim, the founder of a nonprofit group that supports survivors of sexual abuse in West Africa (Freelyinhope.org), is impressed by Goble's deep humility.
"Rachel doesn't consider these people as clients or as issues to be fixed," Ms. Lim says. "She forms deep friendships with them because she wants to ... show through their stories [that these are] lives that matter, lives of dignity."
Goble was among the top 10 finalists for the 2012 Edna Award, which honors young women activists focusing on women's rights. And The SOLD Project placed first in a Nike-sponsored 2012 competition, "The Girl Effect," which raises awareness of the rights of girls.
Today, The SOLD Project serves 13 schools and more than 100 scholarship students in rural northern Thailand. It has also built a community center where children as young as 7 can come for mentoring, tutoring, English classes, and job fairs, and to learn about the dangers of sex trafficking. The SOLD Project's staff of eight in Thailand, and two or three back in the United States, are deeply committed to its goals.
And Goble is still working as a professional photographer, camera in hand, looking for stories of injustice to tell.
She advises other young people to find their own goal to inspire them. Sex trafficking is an important topic right now, Goble says, but she warns against simply following another's path.
"Each person should work on the passions of their own heart," she says. "Pay attention to what's in front of you. There are so many ways to help – tutor a child or help a homeless man."
She says she also believes in the wisdom of the words of Mother Teresa: "If you can't feed 100 people, then feed just one."
What she's learned from following her heart, she says, is that "we're all responsible to some degree."
For more about the work of The SOLD Project, visit http://thesoldproject.com.
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.
Here are three projects selected by UniversalGiving that help children:
• Children of the Night is dedicated to rescuing US children from the ravages of prostitution. Project: Help buy books, shoes, and medical care for former child prostitutes.
• CCD-USA works to prepare children with disabilities in Thailand for independent living. Project: Donate to build the Rainbow Vocational Training Center.