Healing power of art

The first time Linda Lawler spoke to Jacky she expected their conversation to be somber — sad, even.

Instead, she was taken by the joy and hope beaming from the young woman, whose real name and age are not being used to protect her privacy.

Laughter came easily to Jacky, a survivor of sexual violence who lives in My Refuge House in Cebu, Philippines, Lawler noted after they Skyped earlier this year.

"She actually enjoys studying and wants to be a teacher and help poor children and her family," the Newport Beach resident said. "She loves her family and friends and said that God inspires her."

The two were connected ahead of an International Justice Mission (IJM) benefit dinner at the Balboa Bay Resort on Saturday. My Refuge House, an IJM partner and safe home for young girls rescued from commercial sexual exploitation, collaborated with We Step Into The Light, a Southern California-based group that empowers survivors — or thrivers as they are known — of sexual violence by celebrating resilience, strength and inner beauty.

Lawler is one of 12 artists who volunteered to exchange emails and video chat with 12 girls rescued by IJM, an agency that works with law enforcement officials in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere to save men, women and children from human trafficking, modern-day slavery, sexual assault and other types of violent oppression. In 2013, IJM helped more than 3,500 individuals and since its inception in 1997 has protected an estimated 19,000 people from human rights abuses.

After corresponding a few times, Lawler learned that Jacky loves listening to Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" — it calms her, the young woman said — and enjoys watching the sunrise with her friends. Combining these two bits of information, the longtime IJM supporter produced a 16-by-20-inch oil-on-canvas painting depicting three girls bathed in the early morning sun's rays.

Their arms are raised to reflect a new day and life, Lawler said of the work, which shares its name with Jacky's favorite song.

"Their whole lives, these girls have been told that nobody loves them, that nobody wants them, that they are worthless, that they are like dirt," remarked Johanna Tropiano, IJM's director of strategic partnerships. "So then to have a group of 12 people from all the way around the world say that not only do we see you, hear you and know you, but we want to bless you in this way.

"We want to get to know you are, what your hopes and dreams are, create art inspired by you and then send it to you as a gift. It's a really wonderful opportunity for them."

At the upcoming sold-out event, nearly 450 guests will hear about the experiences and circumstances of the thrivers who were the catalysts for this project. The evening's lineup also features a keynote speech by IJM President and Chief Executive Gary Haugen, who penned the book "The Locust Effect," and a performance by Grammy Award-recipient David Hodges.

The cause has already amassed $600,000 in benefit sponsorships from Orange County residents who snatched all the available tickets before the invitations had even been mailed out.

The artworks will be shipped to the Philippines in May after being displayed at a few more events aiding IJM and its partner organizations, said Tropiano, the fundraiser's emcee.

Her husband, Brian, is another artist who was put in touch with a resident of My Refuge House. Kristin identified the beach, sunsets and dancing as comforting, and so the artist's contribution is a series of nine photographs in which a dancer twirls on a cliff in Palos Verdes, silhouetted by the sun.

The project director at We Step Into The Light, Karin Borchard, worked in tandem with Crystal Sprague, executive director of My Refuge House. Borchard found that the girls were shy at the start of the program but that excitement soon trumped all nervousness.

"As we moved forward, trust fostered vulnerability and sharing," she wrote in an email. "The girls became immensely grateful, sharing how much it meant to them to have someone believe in them.

"They were so joyful and giving, writing encouraging verses and poetry for their artists, performing songs over video chats and making lovely drawings to express their gratitude. I sensed that what may have been initial incredulity evolved to fulfillment and hope."

Borchard said that not only does she expect the gifts of art to be healing but that the women's recently formed relationships have been so too. The artists' conversations have not delved into the young women's pasts or sufferings but instead have focused on the promise and potential of the future.

"The art allows the thriver to see her most positive self through the eyes of another — validation," she added. "[And] art can represent what often times is not yet, but is becoming."

Lawrence McAdams of Corona del Mar also offered his creativity to IJM. In place of being paired with a thriver, though, he donated a 36-by-36-inch painting called "Rise," which serves as the event's vision art.

He recalled discussing the opportunity with his wife, who replied: "You have got to do it. This is a reason for your paintings to exist, to really help out this cause."

So he said, "I'm in."

After developing a sketch, which was then approved by the IJM team, he spent the past five weeks perfecting his piece, which depicts women of different ethnicities at various stages in the recovery process.

"Just as the ocean covers 70% of the world, this evil affects women of every nationality, threatening to defeat and engulf their lives," McAdams said.

With the help of organizations like IJM, We Step Into The Light, My Refuge House and others ... they are reclaiming their proper place as strong, valuable and capable citizens of our world. Our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers are enabled and empowered to shake off the suffocation of slavery and rise into the light."

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