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Meet Izabel Olson of Salt and Light Coalition

Today we’d like to introduce you to Izabel Olson.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Izabel. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil under challenging circumstances. My father was a political activist who was incarcerated for 9 years when I was just twelve years old. I experienced homelessness and faced the struggle of growing up without her father present, I was a single mom at 18. But, no matter how challenging my life was, I could always see a light at the end of the tunnel. This light was my education, a strong and supportive mother, my love for Jesus Christ, and my passion for health and wellness.

Despite all of the challenges, I was admitted to Northwestern University in 2009 and I earned my Ph.D. in the Learning Sciences. Upon earning my Ph.D., I decided that the best way to create an impact in the world was by working at the grassroots level. I began teaching yoga at the Cook County Jail. As I got closer to the ladies at the Cook County Jail, I discovered that 70% of incarcerated women are survivors of trafficking. I started doing more research about trafficked women and was startled to find so many parallels between their stories and mine. Although I was never trafficked, I felt called to design a meaningful program grounded in what saved me: God, strong familial relationships, and health and wellness.

Today, Salt and Light Coalition works to produce sustainable change through a year-long program. Through an innovative and holistic curriculum focused on yoga, nutrition, fitness, and faith, Salt, and Light Coalition’s inaugural program helps participants emotionally heal, improve mental well-being, and empowers them with job-readiness to lead healthy and sustainable lives.

Has it been a smooth road?
My life has been very far from a smooth road. I have experienced homelessness, poverty, single parenthood. My life was a complete Mexican Soap Opera – full of drama – even my maiden name was worthy of one: Izabel Cristina Duarte dos Santos. At some point, things were so hard I surrendered. Life is not meant to be a battle.

One day I told myself, I will let God take control of my life – I obviously have no idea what I am doing… I finally let go of my plan and surrendered to His. I began tapping into the unforced rhythms of grace. I built a successful not for profit. The resources, the people, everything fell into place. Today we are changing lives – It was all worth it. The experiences I had were necessary so that I could help support the people I work with now.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
25,000 women are trafficked in Chicago every year. 30% of them are under the age of 15 and 60% are under the age of 18. Salt and Light Coalition is working hard to change those statistics. We help survivors find freedom through jobs in the Health and Wellness sector.

Our unique program focuses on healing by teaching survivors self-care practices (trauma-sensitive yoga, exercise, nutrition, and faith) so that they are able to live freely and start their careers. Then, we focus on financial freedom by providing a job training program that gives women four different certifications: A workforce development program by Rosalind Franklin University, a yoga teacher training certification by Holy Yoga, a Food Handler’s permit through Kitchfix, and finally an ISSA personal training certification with Shytown Fitness.

There are a few things that set us apart: 1) We are a fully volunteer-run nonprofit – so all of the money goes towards the women we work with. The number one cause of recidivism into the sex trade is lack of financial resources – so we pay our participants a $10 an hour stipend and give them CTA cards. 2) We have a very unique program focused on holistic strategies – faith, trauma-sensitive Holy yoga, healthy nutrition, and exercise. No one does what we do! 3) We provide a safe space for women and we also provide a space for business leaders in Chicago to invest in their backyard. As an organization, we want to eradicate trafficking in Chicago! And, we believe our business partners are going to help us do it!

What I am most proud of:
Our program works! In the first six months of our program, our participants see an 8 point drop in the depression scale, they smoke less, take less medication, and lose in average 8 pounds!

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Unfortunately, 25,000 women and girls are trafficked in Chicago every year – so there is a lot of need for what we do. We need to eradicate trafficking locally – 45% of the women that work with us now entered the sex trade before the age of 14, another 36% entered before the age of 18 – that is 81% of our participants! We need to stop the exploitation of kids in our city.

Unfortunately, public funding is hard to come by because of our spirituality focus. So we need business owners to invest more in projects like ours – the ones who will change the landscape of their own backyards. Businesses are in great position to engender change – but often their giving focuses on projects abroad when we have an epidemic right in our city.

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Image Credit:
Victoria Chukarov – Lifestyle Photographer – @Victoriachuk

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