Tran Doan, ’10, and Carter Quinley, ’11, had personal motivations for pursuing The Purse Project in Thailand during the summer of 2009.

Quinley grew up in Thailand, witnessing firsthand the disparity between social classes there. Her parents, Kim and John Quinley, B’79, run an organization in Thailand called Step Ahead, which supports community development.

Carter Quinley and Doan partnered with Step Ahead to develop The Purse Project, an initiative in the city of Pattaya to provide an occupational alternative for women who are exploited in the Thai sex industry.

“It has really been amazing to come back to my home … and be able to give back,” says Quinley, an international studies major.

Doan, a pre-med chemistry major, was inspired by her mother’s struggles as an impoverished native of Vietnam and a U.S. immigrant. “Witnessing my mother’s impressive work ethic, struggles, and strong morals, we were inspired to do everything we could to make her proud and to help others,” Doan says.

The Purse Project supplies the materials and tools to make purses that are marketed through Thai Totes, a Virginia Beach micro-enterprise created after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In addition to earning a living by making purses, the Thai women receive computer training and English instruction. The project was financed by a Projects for Peace grant from the Davis United World College Scholars Program. The grants support grassroots projects designed by undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities.

“It has been so amazing to see this program really come into being,” Quinley says. “In Pattaya, there are over 20,000 women working in the sex industry, and thousands more are at risk. This program will truly open new doors.”

In February, Doan and Quinley shared their experiences from Thailand during a brown bag lunch sponsored by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

They explained how their outreach went beyond setting up The Purse Project, and how they used money they had left over to partner with Pattaya Slum Ministries to host basic health awareness programs.

Doan says that after getting an up-close look at the living conditions in the slum, “I began to understand why women go into the sex trade — they want to make money.”

“It was amazing to talk to people in the slum communities,” Quinley adds, “because this is where the girls come from who will end up working in the bars. We could encourage them to think of alternate dreams and visions for their futures.”

By setting up The Purse Project workshop in a visible location in the center of Pattaya, they hope to offer these women a tangible glimpse at a safer, more empowering way out of poverty.

The work of The Purse Project continues as an umbrella organization of Step Ahead. The first shipment of purses, now called Itsera Freedom Bags, is scheduled to arrive in the United States in the coming days. To start, the stylish leather bags will be sold primarily in the Virginia Beach area and will cost $200 to $300, with all profits going back to Thailand.

“How we are going to keep it sustainable is the biggest piece for me,” Quinley says, adding that Step Ahead will help with fundraising. “We want this project to keep going.”

Portions of this article were written by Bill Lohmann and originally appeared in the fall 2009 issue of Richmond Alumni Magazine. Read the full article.