Alia Whitney-Johnson traveled to Sri Lanka, where she was asked to fundraise for a home for 10-to-18- year-old girls, who had become mothers as a result of rape or incest. “When I walked inside the home, I never had been so overwhelmed in my entire life. I had so many feelings. I didn’t know what to do,” she says.

One girl was so depressed and isolated that she had not spoken for seven days. Another just stared absently into space. “I kept asking myself, how could I help?”

Then she got an idea. An expert jewelry-maker since age seven, Whitney-Johnson asked the girls’ counselor if she could teach them the craft as art therapy and self-expression. Soon, as the children began creating brilliant designs, for the first time they began smiling, laughing, and talking. “They were completely transformed,” she says.

Committed to not only helping the girls but empowering them, Whitney-Johnson later landed a $10,000 grant from the World Bank to develop a non-profit organization called Emerge. Now, the staff at the home teaches the girls jewelry-making, and Emerge sells the work at craft fairs in the U.S. Also it invests the profits so they have money and a vocational skill when they leave the home when they’re 18. She called the project Emerge because of the qualities she saw emerging from the young people — self-confidence, self-dignity, creativity, autonomy, and leadership.

Whitney-Johnson is now fundraising to build in Sri Lanka a learning and leadership community. She plans to build a series of homes not only to give the girls a safe place to live, but also to create for them a community of others, an education program, and vocational training.

“They’ve really taken on new identities. They may not be comfortable talking about their past or about how they feel, but now they’re comfortable sharing who they are through the jewelry.”

Whitney-Johnson, who receives one of the James E. Cunningham Memorial Scholarships, says: “Without financial aid, there’s no way I would ever have been able to attend MIT. Before I came to the Institute, I never imagined myself traveling to another country and doing this kind of service.

“MIT’s Public Service Center gave me a fellowship to go to Sri Lanka, and the scholarship assistance I’ve gotten from MIT has not only allowed me to help these girls, but it has shaped what I want to do with my life. Without that support, I wouldn’t have ever discovered that there was this side of me. I’ve learned how important it is to be engaged in something you find meaningful and beautiful. What I want to do with my life is to help people achieve that.”

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