Maxi and Tabitha months after they were taken in by the Erhardts. While malnutrition takes a long time to overcome, the girls’ health has increased with well-balanced nutrition. (Special to The Forum)

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

Erhardt is finalist for Beautiful Women project

Lindsay Erhardt is a July finalist for our Beautiful Women project. Watch WDAY news at 10 p.m. Sunday and read Monday’s SheSays section when the month’s winner is announced. Visit the “Beautiful Women” blog.

If you go

What: Project Jua at Fargo’s Downtown Street Fair

When: Today from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: The booth will be on the east side of Broadway between Main and NP avenues in downtown Fargo.

Online: Find Jua Project on Facebook, or visit or

FARGO – When she met them, they were just bones.

Maxi, 7, and Tabitha, 4, hadn’t eaten in almost three days. Their distended bellies spoke loudly. Fargo resident Lindsay Erhardt and her family – who were spending 9 months in Kenya – immediately took them in, letting the girls stay in their rented home in Kitali, Kenya.

The girls had been living with their mother, Sellina, in a nearby slum, where rape, drug abuse, oppression and filth prevail. Rent in the slum is typically $2 to $3 a month, which can be a stretch for families surviving on 50 cents a day.

Lindsay and her husband, TJ Erhardt, wanted to help Sellina make a better life for her family. So, Sellina started fashioning rolled paper beads, and Lindsay and TJ would buy them.

After making and selling many beads, Sellina showed up to the Erhardt residence wearing a new dress – the first one she had bought in years. She also had new clothes and light-up shoes for her girls, their first-ever brand-new shoes.

“The girls were so excited,” said Lindsay, a mother of three. “When you see the meaning a new pair of shoes has, and the confidence it brings to a mom when she can provide for her family … it was such a cool moment to see what can happen when you give someone income.”

Knowing there were more women just like Sellina, Lindsay launched Jua Project in January to empower women to leave the slum. She said she knew Jua Project would work the moment she saw Maxi and Tabitha’s reaction to their new shoes and Sellina’s pride.

Jua Project has a booth this year at the Street Fair for the first time. Necklaces and bracelets made by Jua Project women, along with other African crafts, will be sold to benefit the organization.

“Jua” is the Swahili word for sunshine or hope.

“I thought ‘jua’ would be so appropriate because it brings light and hope into dark corners of the world,” she said.

Now, every day, seven women gather on the Erhardt’s covered porch in Kitali to roll the paper beads they sell as part of the project. Although small, the beads are a symbol of hope for women and children living in slums.

“There’s a lot of healing done with these women coming together and having a safe place to talk,” Lindsay said. “They don’t have to worry about watching children or doing laundry. They just have to sit and roll beads – with that, comes a lot of beautiful conversation.”

The beads are strung to create necklaces and bracelets sold through Jua Project, with 100 percent of the profit going directly to the women.

Sellina, Maxi and Tabitha now live out of the slum in a two-room mud-sided house with a tin roof with water accessible nearby. Electricity, a luxury there, lights a single bulb in the home. Rent is $25 per month, an amount Sellina thought she’d never afford. She also has a savings account and is able to afford medical care and school for her children.

“The women thought they couldn’t afford it, and we taught them they could,” Lindsay said. “We are just trying to equip these women to be sustainable because they can do it, and they know they can do it. They just need people to believe in them.”

Lindsay and TJ, who both graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead’s social work program, have been traveling to Kenya for 10 years. They moved to the east African country in 2011 with their three young children to work with a different organization. The organization wasn’t the right fit for the family, and they amicably parted ways.

“Then we thought ‘OK, we’re here in Kenya. We could just go home, or we could try (to) bring relief to the families we see in horrific circumstances,’ ” Lindsay said.

Jua Project is based on a holistic approach, where the women are encouraged to heal physically and spiritually. Some of the women have started weekly Bible studies in the slum.

“It’s simply the women wanting to be jua in their communities,” Lindsay said.

Women who wish to be a part of Jua Project go through a screening process to ensure they need the income and are safe to work with. To date, 11 women and 40 children have been helped – each mother in Kitali averages six children.

Now in the U.S. and soon moving back to Fargo-Moorhead, Lindsay Skypes weekly with the women to make sure they’re doing well.

Jill St. John, Lindsay’s friend and Jua Project board member, supported Lindsay through the process of starting the non-profit organization. The two met on The Christopher Gabriel Program on WDAY radio, right before Lindsay left for Kenya. (WDAY radio and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications.)

Keeping in touch via chat, email and Skype, the women’s friendship deepened over the months, and Jill became one of Lindsay’s biggest cheerleaders.

“To me, Jua Project and Lindsay are the essence of ‘Doing that you can, with what you have, where you are,’ ” said Jill, referring to a Theodore Roosevelt quote. “Global poverty has been my passion for 20 years, but I often feel like ‘What can I possibly do about it?’ Through Jua Project, I can at least help and make some impact.”

Making an impact is Lindsay’s goal for the project.

“I think it’s always been my calling,” she said. “I love Jua so much because purchasing Jua’s jewelry keeps moms alive and kids off the streets, and you’re impacting generations.”

While Lindsay taught the women of Kitali how to earn income, they taught her something too.

“I’ve learned to be content in today,” Lindsay said. “I’ve learned to be grateful in all circumstances.”