Heart-felt challenge to human trafficking
At a narrow desk piled with brightly coloured felt in her bedroom, Abbie von Bertouch is absorbed in her craft.
It’s a common state to find her in – the 23 year-old has put in long, painstaking hours to build her handmade jewellery business, RAW Felt, since developing the concept in 2013.
But while the process of designing, creating and liaising with customers dominates her time, not a cent of the profits is destined for her personal bank account.
“Once costs are covered everything goes to the charity RAW Impact and funds their goal – to prevent human trafficking in Cambodia with sustainable projects,” Abbie, who holds up to three additional jobs at a time, says.
“My goal with RAW Felt is to appeal to as many people as possible so that the message of RAW Impact can be spread.
“People said at the beginning, ‘you could definitely make some money off this’.
“But I’m happy making money in other ways – doing things this way means I get to be creative as well as send out the message and raise money for something I’m really passionate about.”
Ironically, a missed opportunity to volunteer in Cambodia in 2012 proved to be the impetus for RAW Felt’s creation.
“My family went on a volunteer trip and I didn’t go because I was kidding myself that I’d be really flat out with uni,” Abbie says.
“I really loved what they told me about Cambodia and I was really upset that I didn’t go.
“So I got in touch with a man, Troy Roberts, who my family met because he was volunteering in Cambodia at the same time.
“When he started RAW Impact in 2013 I just said ‘yes – I’d love to help, please let me’.”
The acronym RAW, shared by Abbie’s business, stands for the foundation’s mission: Raising Awareness Worldwide.
Troy and his wife Nicole, already managing a home for at-risk Cambodian girls, were then beginning their first projects to build sustainable housing, biogas tanks, toilets and water-pumps in the rural villages.
Abbie was in her final year of a Media Arts degree at the University of South Australia and, dreaming of a trip to Cambodia where she could make a practical contribution, began experimenting with necklace designs.
“It started with just some leftover felt – I thought I’d make some jewellery,” she says.
“I didn’t need to sell it but then I thought, I do need to fundraise a thousand dollars for this trip so I can help pay for building supplies.
Seeing the difference her funds made to villagers’ lives “blew my mind” and she vowed to make time for at least one trip to Cambodia each year.
RAW Felt picked up momentum as she expanded the business to include home décor, bracelets and rings, still honouring her love for bold statement pieces in bright colours.
“Bright is definitely the way to go,” Abbie says.
“I’ve been forced to pay attention to what’s on trend out there so I can keep current and attract as many buyers as possible because I want people to buy the products not only to fund RAW Impact but to spread the message about what it is.
“People recognise RAW Felt because of all the textures – the felt that I use and all the colours.
“I also think the handmade aspect is what sells it.
“It takes time and at first I used to worry that I was doing this too slowly but now I’m really glad that I do it so personally.”
Abbie’s products may be fun and whimsical but she’s committed to a cause that’s far more serious.
Cambodia currently ranks 136th on the United Nations’ Human Development Index (Australia is second) and on her first visit to the country in 2013, Abbie faced situations that redefined her ideas of poverty and need.
“I’d never seen such a lack of healthcare,” she says.
“In some of these villages the members have AIDS and can’t get their treatment.
“Some of them have diseases that we don’t think about because they’ve been wiped out here like tuberculosis.
“But since we’ve been coming into these villages and helping them learn how to farm or earn money or go to school and learn English, you can just see their health improving.
“That’s probably the most important thing but then they’re just becoming really innovative.
“Every time you’ll go there there’ll be a new farm propped up or a new house that they’ve been able to afford to build.”
Each of RAW Impact’s projects aligns with their broader goal of preventing human trafficking within and via Cambodia.
While he strives to keep the focus on the positive difference they are making, it was witnessing a middle-aged white man buy a five year-old Cambodian girl for sex in Phnom Penh, 2011 that inspired founder and CEO Troy’s commitment to the cause.
“This experience shook me harder than any other in Cambodia,” Troy says.
“The fear in her eyes haunted me for months and made me ask some serious questions – how could this happen outside a restaurant in public view, where were the police, where do these girls come from?”
Education, both academic and in sustainable farming practices, is RAW Impact’s key strategy for prevention.
“We realise time and time again it’s about working with kids and their families within their communities so they can have a better life and are spared from the rest,” co-founder and director Nicole says.
“When I hear children refuse to return home because they want to continue going to school and others now able to return home because a toilet was installed and their house is secure – I’m always surprised how it really is the little things that make the most impact.”
It’s an approach Abbie hopes to build on when she visits Cambodia for a prolonged stay in 2016.
She’s marked June in her diary as a tentative departure date and will lay foundations during the visit to establish a Cambodian branch of Raw Felt.
“I’m really trying to get resourceful because I’d love to teach a whole bunch of staff and get them earning an income off this,” she says.
“There’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to do it forever so I’m thinking about the long-term – how to make my products from materials you might find in Cambodia.
“They’ve got plenty of textile markets but I’ve also been thinking about how I could teach Cambodian women to make clay or to recycle objects like bottle caps and spare tyres.
“That would be amazing if they could earn an income and then the leftover profit could fund more projects.”
Here in Australia, Abbie says we can support her cause by starting conversations about the insidious issue that is human trafficking.
“We are quite closed off to it and there can be that sense that it’s not our problem,” she says.
“I can say that because I was – I thought I knew what human trafficking meant but I didn’t know anything really.
“Unfortunately we contribute to it sometimes when we buy something really cheaply or poorly made or when we visit certain areas overseas that are profiting off forced labour.
“It would be great if Australians were shown real transparency about where their products are coming from.
“I think we’d all be pretty shocked and we’d all change our ways immediately.”
The international journey for Raw Felt is about to begin but Abbie can trace the business’ roots back to her childhood, when she learned the joy of creating.
“My sister and I grew up in the Riverland with no neighbours for kilometres, so we were always making up ways to play together,” she says.
“We were pretty crafty and we’re all musicians in the family – I’ve never really stopped creating.
“We’ve always been making things and gluing things and Mum’s been pretty kind to let us destroy the house with all our projects.
“So to me it’s just really incredible that something you learn as a kid like sewing has the potential to change lives so drastically.”
Images: Brenton Edwards