When Holly Christine Hayes found herself the victim of ongoing abuse and in the throes of addiction nearly 20 years ago, she never would have imagined how much different her life would become. It was when she hit the very bottom that she began to be lifted out of a life-threatening situation through faith and the support of others who understood the evil that had harmed her. Today, Holly is that support system for dozens of other women. She founded the 100% survivor-run and not-for-profit Sanctuary Project after seeing the joy and community jewelry making evokes in others. Not only is Holly now at the helm of a jewelry brand, but she is lifting others up along the way toward her dream. A dream that is all about second chances, grace, and seeking joy after a lot of darkness. We can’t wait for you to know Holly Christine Hayes, our newest FACE of the South.
Can you tell us a bit about your life’s trajectory? How did you end up starting your own jewelry line?
After coming out of a life of trafficking, violence, and addiction nearly 20 years ago, I began mentoring other survivors and found the greatest challenge for most women was finding meaningful employment. In 2012, I visited an organization in Thailand that worked with women coming out of sex trafficking in the brothels of Bangkok. They trained survivors to make jewelry, which they sold to help support their mission and rescue work. As I watched the women sitting together around a table, giggling, talking, dreaming, crying, and sharing their hearts and lives with one another, I realized there was something incredibly special about the act of making jewelry together. This vision inspired me, and I began to dream of this place and this jewelry line.
How does the word sanctuary play into your designs and business philosophy?
I’ve always loved the word sanctuary. Deep down, a feeling of sanctuary was what I longed for in the years I spent trapped in trafficking, violence, and addiction. Each piece in our line is designed with this word and image in mind. Whether capturing the essence of the old cathedrals of Europe or the quiet peace found in nature, we draw inspiration from the word and feeling of those places of sanctuary in every design. I want every piece in the line to capture the elegance, delicate femininity, and artful essence of women who have been molded by lives of trauma into overcomers. We hope the elevated designs reflect the empowering work we’re doing and evoke the feeling of sanctuary we’ve all found here.
From Basement to Sanctuary is the name of your book and encapsulation of your life … is that fair to say? How have your personal traumas and experiences affected your new life?
[The] sexual abuse I experienced in my childhood sent me spiraling into drug and alcohol addiction from a young age, which led to a life of violence, trafficking, and eventual homelessness. In February of 2001, I was on the floor of a public bathroom and said my first prayer … “God, help me.” That very night, I met someone who got me into a recovery program, and I have been safe and sober since that day — 20 years in February! From there, I began the long journey of healing, and today I get to walk with other women on their healing journey as well.
Sanctuary Project is so much more than a jewelry brand. Can you tell us about all the ways you help other survivors of trafficking and addiction?
We’ve taken a four-step approach to work with survivors at Sanctuary Project: Outreach, Advocacy, Employment, and Empowerment. We begin with OUTREACH, regularly going into the community and our county jail to identify survivors of trafficking, violence, and addiction who are ready to transform their lives. Through our ADVOCACY program, we help survivors connect with the community resources they need to begin their recovery journey. We then offer EMPLOYMENT opportunities to women ready to work toward self-sufficiency. All the while EMPOWERING women to move toward their long-term goals and ultimate independence.
What’s a common misconception people have about the human sex trafficking industry?
When people hear the word “trafficking,” they often imagine scenes from the movie Taken or women being kidnapped and chained to beds. Although those things do happen, they are not the norm we see in trafficking cases. Many are shocked to find out the majority of traffickers are a person known to the victim. Most are boyfriends, friends, or family members. Because traffickers are master manipulators, many women have trouble identifying as a trafficking survivor because they see themselves as complicit in the situation, despite the manipulation and coercion by the trafficker. This makes personal testimony of real trafficking cases more vital to discovering victims and helping them get the aid they need to escape.
Can you share a specific success story about a survivor you have helped?
Although the small victories we see every day motivate me constantly, women celebrating milestones of sobriety or freedom from their life of trafficking and violence — this year, I got to see two of our women buy their first homes. Those massive leaps toward independence and financial freedom — all because of their employment at Sanctuary Project — are truly what this is all about. We don’t just want to see our women “survive” trafficking, violence, and addiction; we want to see them step into the fullness of who they were created to be!
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as an entrepreneur?
Running a jewelry business and a growing brand would be challenging enough, but we’ve added a layer of complexity as a staff of ALL survivors, working together. We each have our own stories and our unique traumas, so the stress of running a business can really get to each of us on any given day. It makes for an exciting workplace! We’ve learned to extend endless grace and patience to each other and understand that any of us could be easily triggered by one another.
When you’re not working, where can we find you in Austin?
My husband and I enjoy life on our hobby farm and vineyard just outside of Austin in the Hill Country. We have a sweet farm of fuzzy animals — goats, cows, and chickens — that bring endless joy and a 1-year-old daughter who keeps us busy and giggling constantly.
What’s something people are often surprised to learn about you?
I spent most of my life working in musical theater and have a BFA in musical theater from the Boston Conservatory. I don’t perform anymore, but I’m still always singing show tunes around the house.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
When I started Sanctuary Project, one of my best friends, Kim Biddle, who ran an anti-trafficking organization in California for more than 10 years, gave me an incredible piece of advice. The work we do is dark and forces us to see the worst of humanity. She advised me, “With the same fervor you are going after the darkness in the world, make sure you are intentionally pursuing JOY.” I’ve taken that to heart and make sure to fill my days with joy in whatever ways possible.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
I would say my chickens — but I think they might count as family or friends? Other than chickens, all I really need in life is a laptop, a giant water bottle, and a good pair of tan pointy toe flats.
Thank you, Holly, for so openly sharing a remarkable story and work mission. And thank you to Sanctuary Project for submitting the photos.
You can snag a piece of Sanctuary Project jewelry of your own at sanctuaryproject.com.
Get to know more of our inspiring FACES in our archives!