FRANKLIN LAKES, N.J. – When Cathy Zahn of Franklin Lakes was reading Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof, there were some nights when the book’s details of human trafficking in Cambodia were too much to handle.
“I had to close the book,” she said, recalling stories of 10-year-old girls being trafficked for sex.
But she couldn’t keep it closed for good.
“I read the book and it was really gut-wrenching. And it was the kind of book when you finished, you just couldn’t say, ‘Oh well, that was a nice book and thank God I live in Franklin Lakes and too bad for those people,’” she said. “I felt there was something I had to do. I couldn’t just do nothing.”
Zahn said she learned that many children are orphaned in Cambodia, and many are abducted by traffickers or sold into trafficking by their impoverished families. She also learned that most children in rural villages did not attend school, because the schools were too far away.
With her own three daughters in the back of her mind, she had to take action.
“I’m looking at mine, peaceful as anything, not as much as a splinter, and I am like, wow, this is ridiculous,” Zahn said.
She decided to build a school in Cambodia, because “if we can educate the girls, they could eventually stand up for themselves,” she said.
But building a school costs money, and Zahn didn’t want to rely solely on fundraisers.
So she established Gracie Greene, an initiative to create beautiful products that people would use, and sell them to raise money for education.
Zahn utilizes burlap coffee bean bags from farmers from around the world, as well as leather and cowhide to create totes, crossbody bags, luggage and pillows.
And each purchase comes with an impact tag stating how exactly the funds will help children in Cambodia.
In 2014, the Zahn School – which serves about 500 children from 1st through 6th grades – officially opened its doors. Last year, Zahn was able to send enough money to the school to purchase computers and fund an English language teacher.
This year, she wants to be able to send funds for more computers and an additional year of the English language teacher’s salary.
Zahn said a lot of people get overwhelmed by huge issues like human trafficking. But the book taught her that if you chip a problem down, and focus on a small piece, you can make a difference.
“I understand now that I am not going to conquer human trafficking, but, if I could help one little girl … have a nice life and a safe life, I am happy,” she said.
Gracie Greene bags are available for purchase at La Casita in Ridgewood, Market House in Westwood, The Body Image Boutique in Saddle River, and The Outside In in Piermont, as well as online at GracieGreene.com .