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Female ex-cons make jewelry to give back

JERSEY CITY, N.J. A nonprofit organization that provides jobs to poor women in Africa has brought its model to women transitioning out of prison in the United States.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. A nonprofit organization that provides jobs to poor women in Africa has brought its model to women transitioning out of prison in the United States.

Same Sky was founded five years ago to help women in Rwanda who were left destitute after the 1994 civil war. Same Sky America is a pilot expansion started this year for women trying to rebuild their lives after serving sentences at the Hudson County Correctional Center in New Jersey.

In Rwanda and Jersey City, the women are employed as artisans and earn money for their handiwork. They hand-bead bracelets and necklaces, which Same Sky sells online and in stores, with the net profits going to help the women in Rwanda.

The women and their mentors are the first to say how complete a transition the women on both continents are making.

"By me making the bracelet, I am giving back," said Shaneka Boatwright, 36, who lives and works at a New Jersey halfway house after serving time for weapon possession and aggravated assault. "I don't really have anything, but they have less than I do."

Francine LeFrak, an Emmy- and Tony-winning producer, founded Same Sky after making a film about Rwandan genocide, which left a quarter-million rape victims HIV-positive and impoverished. Their dire circumstances convinced LeFrak that they needed an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty - a hand up, not a handout, as LeFrak likes to say.

The artisans earn 15 to 20 times the prevailing wage for women in East Africa and $3 per piece in the United States. All the net proceeds from online and retail sales, with partners including Cole Haan, DKNY, and Toms shoes, are reinvested to train and employ more women in need of work.

LeFrak said she decided to expand the program because of the need for employment opportunities for women "right here in our backyard."

"Same Sky was born with a mission to provide women with the dignity of work. From Rwanda to Jersey City, we are dedicated to eradicating poverty through training and job creation," LeFrak says on the organization's website, "Ultimately, we want to spread the idea that shopping can change the world."

Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, a Democrat who resigned from office in 2004 and now counsels Jersey City women who have been incarcerated, said the chances of a woman returning to jail diminish greatly if she can find housing and secure a job. But the job has to be flexible, he said, to allow the women to attend drug court, report to probation, or go to school.

Beading bracelets, which is done at the Most Excellent Way Life Center where they live, provides flexibility and collegiality.

McGreevey introduced LeFrak to halfway house founder Gloria Walton, who agreed to help guide the women's budding entrepreneurship. The residents, often working in small groups seated around a long table, fill jewelry orders as they come in from Same Sky. The women have individualized techniques for stringing the beads and recreating patterns, and they have chosen one among them to oversee quality and have taped a prototype of each bracelet to a piece of cardboard to give less experienced crafters a visual reference to the finished product.

Laughter, music, and deep conversation sometimes happen around the table, said Walton, who described the work as meaningful, spiritual, and cathartic.

"They give themselves over to making something good and beautiful," McGreevey said.

The New Jersey women have produced about 5,000 bracelets. The income has helped some of them open savings accounts and learn to budget for the first time in their lives.

"It's a legitimate job," said Walton, who noted that one woman recently earned a $900 biweekly paycheck.

In mid-December, the Jersey City crafters will be trying something new - selling their Benefit bracelets at a rented kiosk at Newport Centre mall. A trio of bracelets, which is how the Benefit collection is sold, costs $50. The women in Jersey City have already earned $89,000 for their sisters in Rwanda.

Jewelry-maker Barbara Murray, 44, says it feels good "that I'm not doing anything to get myself in trouble. I want better."

After spending eight months in jail and two years on probation for multiple shoplifting convictions, including one at the mall where she will be selling bracelets this weekend, Murray has jokingly volunteered to be head of security at the kiosk.

"I can spot 'em," she said of would-be thieves. "And if I'm wrong, I'd be the first to say I'm sorry."