Growing up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Stacy Hollingsworth didn’t set out to change life’s trajectory for hundreds of poverty-stricken Kenyan women and children. But for a woman with a servant’s heart, anything is possible.
Stacy’s journey began in Senegal on a mission trip that took her away from home for three years. Returning to the United States after contracting a debilitating disease, the forensic psychologist put her training to use for the State of Tennessee and, later for her own firm, Search Unlimited, which specialized in solving violent crimes and locating missing persons. Along the way, she adopted six children, two of whom have special needs.
When Stacy’s aging mother could no longer care for herself, Stacy quit her job and spent the next two and a half years as her caretaker. “We had all sorts of wonderful experiences,” she says. “When Mom needed a change of scenery, we’d go camping, which she adored. Whatever she wanted to do, we did.”
At a crossroads after the death of her beloved mother, Stacy reached out to Jennifer Dollar, a college friend living in Columbia. With nothing holding her to Tennessee, Stacy decided to move. She went to work for the Columbia Fire Department and Richland County EMS, first as a firefighter and, later, as a first responder. “Stacy has always been inspired to help others,” says Jennifer. “It’s who she is.”
Wanting to do more, Stacy once again set out on a series of mission trips, this time with Missions to the World, where she helped staff medical clinics set up to provide care to those who had no access to a doctor. “It’s exhausting work,” she says. “People travel for miles for the chance to see a doctor, and you have to be prepared for just about anything. The hardest part is that we’re in and we’re out. There’s no opportunity for follow-up.”
That all changed in 2015 as Stacy was planning to join a mission to Kenya. Wanting to provide more than triage medical care, Stacy convinced the group to add a women’s health symposium to the services they’d be offering.
“The health clinics are vital, but I felt that providing information that might help families stay healthy would be incredibly useful,” says Stacy. “I’d also be teaching a Bible study and providing information on human trafficking, which I knew was rampant in that area.”
Though Stacy knew her way around the Bible, she didn’t know much about human trafficking in Kenya. What she discovered during her research shocked and dismayed her. “Kenya supports human trafficking in every way,” she says. “Trafficked humans are provided and exploited; the country also serves as a transit point for humans to be sent to other countries that support the practice. About 50 Kenyan children are trafficked each week; some families are so poor that they’ll prostitute out a child just so they can eat.”
Stacy also uncovered the reasons why humans are trafficked. “It’s not just for sex, although that’s a huge part of it,” she says. “People are also trafficked to work as low-level workers in sweatshops and other industries, to serve as child soldiers, and to provide organs to wealthy people who don’t want to go through legal channels.”
Stacy arrived in Kenya heartbroken but determined to do what she could. Arriving, she discovered families living in horrific conditions, such as with open sewers and no running water or electricity. Many families were crammed into 12-by-12-foot single room dwellings and feeding their families on two dollars a day.
“We were focused on an area called Kibera that’s the largest slum in Africa. Three million people live in about two square miles,” she says. For comparison, that’s a little less than twice the size of New York City’s Central Park. “It didn’t seem like the kind of place that money could help. We needed to give residents a pathway to make their way out.”
Stacy was encouraged by the women she met, many of whom were talented artisans producing ornate baskets, stunning beaded bracelets, and beautifully tailored garments. Some were already taking baby steps toward a better life by selling their handiwork at local markets. “I thought I was crafty until I saw the quality of their work,” Stacy says with a laugh. “Their basketry, fabric work, and other skills are simply incredible.”
The problem lay in efficiency — if nothing sold at the market, the artisan wasted a day and had no income for her work. “A few women were working with companies that sold their goods on consignment, but they didn’t get paid unless something sold,” says Stacy. “I wanted to find a better way. I wanted to find a way for them to earn money they could count on.”
It was during one of Stacy’s daily conversations with God that an idea began to take shape. “The Lord suggested that I find a way to market their products,” she says. “When I told Him that I didn’t know anything about business, He reminded me that I have friends who do.”
Stacy spent the next few years laying the groundwork for a plan that would pay artisans for their work regardless of whether the products sold. She called it The Esther Project Shop, after Esther 4:14, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
“It’s about women helping women,” says Stacy. “Any loss would come to The Esther Project Shop, not the artisan.”
Jennifer, who had served on the medical team during Stacy’s first trip to Kenya, agreed to serve on the board of the new nonprofit. “Stacy sees ways to help that other people miss,” she says. “I was in Kenya, but the thought to start The Esther Project Shop never crossed my mind. She saw the problem and came up with a solution.”
As Stacy began to recruit artisans to The Esther Project Shop, which is online only at TheEstherProjectShop.com, she came across a group of six local women who had had a similar idea. “They realized that you can’t make money without money, so they pooled their slim resources and made interest-free loans to other artisans in the area,” says Stacy. “They introduced me to a gentleman named Ndeke, who makes animal figurines from old flip-flops.”
When Stacy met Ndeke, he told her that he’d originally worked for a large company that made a similar product. Hoping to build a better life for his sons, Ndeke asked the company to hold back a portion of his wages so he could begin to save for tuition. They refused. Then Ndeke heard about the women’s co-op.
“He borrowed enough to purchase the machine he needed to make the figurines,” says Stacy. “His oldest son graduated from the University of Kenya and is working as an engineer; his younger son is still there. It’s proof that all people need is a little help.”
Today Ndeke continues to craft the figurines, which are made by gluing thin layers of flip-flop material into bricks, then using a machete to carve the bricks into animal shapes. The brightly striped zebras, elephants, and other animals are now available through The Esther Project Shop.
As word spread about the shop, Stacy was soon able to offer a remarkable range of products, including bowls, plates, napkin rings, and vases carved from native soapstone. “Because women in Kenya aren’t allowed to harvest or carve soapstone, these products require a joint effort between men and women,” says Stacy. “The men dig up the soapstone, which is usually about 40 feet below the surface, then use 2-foot-long machetes to carve it into designs that are usually created by women. The women sand and paint the finished product.”
In 2020, Stacy says God came back to her with another idea. “He suggested that I quit my job and work full time with The Esther Project Shop. This was not an easy decision for me. I grew up poor so having a job was not something to be squandered.”
Once again, though, Stacy listened to God. “We went from five artisans to 250, which is incredible,” she says. “It has allowed us not only to improve their lives but to partner with the only free school in Kenya. It currently serves 650 children.”
In addition to the school, The Esther Project Shop has also set up an orphanage for kids removed from trafficking. “Some of these children have mothers as young as 11,” says Stacy. “You simply can’t imagine the things they’ve seen.”
To help the children in the orphanage begin a pathway toward self-reliance, Beatrice, who manages both the school and the orphanage, sees that the children learn skills such as beadwork, tailoring, and weaving. “We’re selling beautiful banana leaf placemats that were made by an eighth grader named Michael,” says Stacy. “When he showed them to me, I told him they needed to match. He laughed and told me to turn them over — he’d put a different pattern on each side. It’s so intricate, I don’t know how he did it.”
To potential buyers, Stacy’s message is clear: “Instead of buying a backpack from a national retailer, consider spending the same money for one made by Katherine to support her family,” she says. “You might help them get a phone or a house with two rooms.”
Next up for The Esther Project Shop is a school and orphanage in Kisii, as well as a school and orphanage in the Maasai region of Kenya. After that, the sky’s the limit.
“Stacy was always at the top of her class, and she could have chosen to do anything with her life,” says Jennifer. “She chose to serve those whom no one else was serving, and she found a way to do it that empowered them. She’s doing truly amazing things.”