Charleston girl turns to India to help victims of human trafficking -- with shoes

Victoria Hansen

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - A 22-year-old with a passion for shoes is nothing new, but Erika McKelvey sews her own. What's more, she frequently travels the world teaching others her trade.

No, Erika Lynn McKelvey is not your typical college graduate.

"For the past 14 years I have been traveling to Romania on annual mission trips to work with the orphans, street kids, and impoverished," she said.

McKelvey got a rare glimpse of the world at a very young age.{} She met children, not much younger than herself, trapped in poverty.{}Many had no parents, no skills, no hope - {}no way out.

"When I was 13, we took two sewing machines over and I taught four young orphan girls how to make simple handbags," said McKelvey.{}"These girls, now aged out of the orphanage, hold full time jobs in a sewing factory."

"It was there that the idea of sharing my skills and talents with those in need began."

Nine years and many missionary trips later, McKelvey graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a BFA in Accessory and Footwear Design. She immediately had offers that would have put her on a fast track to a high fashion career in places like New York and Los Angeles.

Instead, she chose India.

"Deep in my heart, I felt the need to start my own business to eventually be able to use my passion to help those with less opportunity to learn a skill and become productive citizens in their own country," she said. {}

So, McKelvey started her Charleston-based company, Erika Lynn Handmade Leather Sandals. But it wasn't long before she was on the road, teaching leather working at a vocational training center in India.{}Her students were survivors of human trafficking.

But that first trip in December 2012 didn't exactly go as planned.

"On my first trip to India, the safe house was still under construction so directly training the women would not have been safe for the women or me at the time," said McKelvey. "So they had me train the national trainers."

She taught and she learned.

"As we traveled to view the safe house and compound, I was shown the prostitute villages that surrounded it," said McKelvey. "Women sit on the surrounding walls of their village with ladders to allow the men to enter. The men in each village that sell them carefully monitor them."

"It is a very sad sight to see because you know they have their children sitting inside their homes, which, without a change or help, will be brought up with the same horrible future."

That horrible, unimaginable future inspired McKelvey to create Universole.{}The nonprofit empowers survivors with sustainable skills, allowing women to earn an income and provide for their families on their own.

"A year ago I found out a dear friend, once an orphan in Romania, is now caught in the chains of human trafficking after she aged out of the orphanage," said McKelvey. "Through Universole, we can help these victims and one day find my friend and bring her out of this horrible cycle."

McKelvey says she's seen the need and believes she knows{}a way out.

{}"I visited some impoverished villages where the families lived in tents and had nothing," said McKelvey. "You look in the eyes and faces of these beautiful children and know that you must do something to help."

McKelvey teaches children and adults how to make leather shoes.{}She uses products indigenous to their country, like the traditional suri in India.{}The colorful suris are weaved into straps{}for what McKelvey calls the Layaka Sandal.

"Layaka is the Hindi word for worth," said McKelvey.{} "She is worth more!"

The handmade shoes are then bought from{}vocational centers and sold in the United States.{}The money made trains more women and raises awareness about the abuse of human trafficking.

"The goal for Universole is to partner with other organizations and vocational centers in four continents by 2017." said McKelvey.{}"I would like to have a retail shop set up here in Charleston to sell the leather shoes and other products made by these women."

But first, McKelvey plans to travel back to India in November.

"I will be training the women who are survivors of human trafficking at the safe house that is now being finished," said McKelvey.

She's also bringing men.

"They will be able to help with some of the training as well as some construction and playing cricket and soccer with the young men in the surrounding villages," said McKelvey. "The hope is to eventually start breaking the cycle through reaching the men as well as the women."

McKelvey's nonprofit, like others, relies on donations as well as sales of the shoes.{}Plus, she's come up with something pretty clever.

"Shoe-ing!{}It's similar to what many church youth groups here in America do called "flamingo-ing."

For $50, the group will cover a friend's yard in old shoes and then clean up the mess. It's a fun gag that raises money for a good cause. They also leave behind an inspirational message.

{}"After my first trip to India, my eyes were opened even greater to the massive need that I witnessed. I realized I could never turn my back to this need and my work could not stop after one trip," said McKelvey. "It made me more determined to be involved and get others involved."

Now she's a young shoemaker determined to change lives, one sole at a time.{} To learn more, go to