Story by Jennie Trejo. Video by Angelica Villa. Photos provided by The Net.
When it comes to combatting human trafficking, poverty, and empowering survivors, Melissa Ice emerges as a dynamic force driving change. Melissa founded both The Net, a nonprofit organization, and co-founded The Worthy Co., a social enterprise business, from the same initiative. These entities are committed to making a meaningful impact in the lives of survivors in the Fort Worth area.
Before Melissa became the founder of The Net, she was a missional director for a church in Fort Worth. Her first encounter with human trafficking was in China, where she spent summers taking TCU students to serve.
“That was not only my first exposure to trafficking, but also the empowerment piece of what it looks like to help someone,” Melissa says.
During that time, Melissa’s friend worked at a ministry that helped women who were in brothels in China. When they visited the women, they would bring them baked goods. But if the women wanted to get out and lead a new life, they would be offered jobs at the bakery. Melissa got to watch that endeavor grow over five summers.
“When I came home from those trips, I felt really compelled to figure out what was happening in my own city in regards to helping women who were being exploited.”
It was 2010, and Melissa realized there was very limited support for women needing help in Fort Worth. Through her church, she began organically serving people who were experiencing homelessness. Some of them were young girls who she quickly realized were also being exploited. So she began poking around to see if anyone else was doing something about it.
Shortly after that, Judge Brent Carr founded a program for women who have a history of prostitution, addiction, and exploitation. It is called RISE, which stands for “Reaching Independence through Self Empowerment.”
“It was really the only thing that existed twelve years ago for women who wanted to rehabilitate and recover from a life of exploitation,” Melissa explains. “I met with him, and he said, ‘I would love for you to have a seat at the table and help create opportunities for these women.’”
Between that meeting and Melissa’s prior work, The Net was founded in 2012. Recognizing the interconnectedness of poverty and exploitation, Melissa collaborated with Judge Carr to establish programs for women survivors who were recovering from exploitation.
Melissa’s initial team was made up of herself and a group of volunteer college students.
“It was originally a volunteer, organic grassroots kind of effort with myself and a bunch of college kids who were going and visiting the women in jail,” Melissa says. There’s a part of Fort Worth called Lancaster, where many shelters are and where many people who are houseless hang out. So we would find the best ways to help them.”
Many of those same volunteers that Melissa brought along back then still comprise her team at The Net today. Sarah Bowden, the operations director, is one of those special people who have stayed along for the journey. She came to The Net as a senior at TCU in 2012. Since meeting Melissa and hearing her passion for changing lives in Fort Worth, she has decided to throw her heart and soul into the project.
“There was a culture I tried to create within the college ministry that it was cool to care,” Melissa explains. “And that if you were at TCU, you weren’t just in Fort Worth to get a degree. That maybe there’s a bigger meaning and purpose behind you being in the city for four years. Maybe that purpose looks like caring for people that most people don’t often care for.”
Founded in 2018, The Worthy Co. is the social enterprise arm of The Net. Melissa says that it was actually birthed as a response to a pain point they kept encountering with the women they were serving: finding dignified employment.
“We had six years of providing care and recovering for survivors,” Melissa says. “We would see them get clean, reunite with their families, and really put in the work to be the person they wanted to be. They would graduate from our program, only to find themselves in a position where they were forced into going back to the things that they knew from the past.”
The combination of a criminal record and recovering from the trauma they’ve experienced made this barrier seem insurmountable. According to Worthy Co.’s website, in the state of Texas, four prostitution misdemeanors result in a felony permanently on your record.
“We use the term ‘dignified employment’ because sometimes the only employment available were not safe, or living wage jobs,” Melissa elaborates. “We sadly have stories of women who’s employers would solicit them or call them names because they knew their background and where they came from.”
When Melissa created The Net, she wanted to ensure that they were not just going through the motions. The holistic approach extended beyond traditional aid by building relationships, fostering rehabilitation, and creating opportunities for those in vulnerable situations. This collaborative effort became a hallmark of both The Net and, eventually, Worthy Co.
“We found ourselves saying, ‘Okay, well, if no one else is going to employ them or teach them the soft skills they need to be employed, then we’ll do it.”
Melissa was empowered to take the leap because she had seen it done at the bakery in China, and she knew of organizations that employed people from various backgrounds. And so, Worthy Co. was born.
“I knew it was possible– didn’t know how hard it would be,” Melissa says with a laugh. She describes the challenge of maintaining the delicate balance between their mission goals and remaining profitable. According to her, those stay in constant tension, but at the end of the day, they are just truly trying to meet women where they are.
“They’re whole people,” Melissa says. “They’ve experienced a lot of different hardships, whether it’s childcare, depression, abusive spouses, cars getting broken into or breaking down, all those things. We just work to be a launching pad that moves forward.”
The products sold at Worthy Co. vary from handmade candles and jewelry to sweatshirts, infant clothing, and more. The interior space is beautiful and bright, with big windows that let in an abundance of natural sunlight and blush and gold accents woven throughout.
The survivors who are employed at Worthy Co. become the artisans. They learn everything from making jewlery, candle pouring, order fulfillment, shipping– every piece of the puzzle. They also put an emphasis on life skills, such as getting to work on time and what it means to work in a healthy environment.
Melissa shares a story about one particular survivor, Tina*, as one of hope and transformation. Tina first came to The Net over ten years ago. She had joined a survivor-led support group and was resistant, making sure everyone knew that she did not want to be there. Fast forward ten years, Tina has worked hard and earned her position in an operational role.
Recently, Tina came to work wearing a pink shirt for the first time. Melissa says that Tina told them: “I used to only wear black. But then I realized I was wearing black on the outside because that’s how I felt on the inside. But I don’t feel that way anymore. I want to look like you in this building, which is light and happy. And that’s because that’s what I am now.”
Tina’s transformation symbolizes not only the professional growth of rising through the ranks of the company, but also that internal change where she sees herself differently when she looks in the mirror.
As The Net and Worthy Co. continue to grow, they evolve to meet the needs of the survivors that they serve. They have outgrown their production space at 1216 Lake Street in Fort Worth and have plans to move that facet to a secondary location. They hope to use the backroom to expand their popular candle-making classes and continue to educate the community about the pressing issue of human trafficking and exploitation in North Texas.
“The idea behind the name ‘The Net’ is that we wanted to be a safety net for the people that didn’t have one,” Melissa explains. “But we also realized that it couldn’t just be one or two bleeding hearts that do all the work. It has to be an entire ‘net’work of everybody doing their part, from businesses, to churches, to students, to moms, to companies.”
If you would like to learn how to get involved at The Net or use your purchasing powers for good, you can check out their website here. You can also sign up to take a candle-making class at Worthy Co. here.
*Names have been changed for privacy.