STORY BY CHELSEA CALLICOTT
PHOTOGRAPHY by Keith Family
Jeff and Shannon Keith are that rare couple whose personal ambitions and professional lives completely dovetail. They met in their 20s as they each pursued their heart’s desire with mission work and even shared early ambitions of becoming medical missionaries. Their courtship unfolded as they laid tile together at a Mexican orphanage, built a well in an Indian red-light district and served as first responders to Hurricane Katrina, overseeing a large-scale humanitarian effort in New Orleans’ ninth ward.
The call to be of service was instilled in each of them early on and is still very much alive nearly two decades later. Jeff and Shannon’s passions for serving those most vulnerable have evolved into two organizations dedicated to eliminating human trafficking in the United States and India.
They provide new work opportunities — Shannon for former sex slaves in India through Sudara and Jeff for former combat vets through his nationally recognized nonprofit, Guardian Group.
Shannon first traveled with Jeff on a mission to an orphanage in Mexico and then accompanied him to India to build a fresh water well for a community known as untouchables, an experience that completely changed the course of both of their lives.
Jeff recounts, “India is a very male-dominated culture. They would say ‘Pastor Keith, speak to the people…’ But the well we built was in the middle of a red-light district and the gathered crowd consisted of fifty-some female sex workers, ages 9-16.
“I said, ‘Shannon, you need to be the one to speak to them.’ And she did, and deeply connected with the girls. We both have a heart for underserved people who are powerless. But the way that the Indian caste system propagated and even justified the sex slavery of girls was more than either of us could accept.”
During this trip, Shannon came up with the idea that there might be a product these young women could make that could be sold in the U.S. She saw all the beautiful sari material and wondered how the women might be trained to make punjammies, or pajamas, and her company Sudara, first known as the International Princess Project, was conceived.
Shannon commented, “If I was going to go back to work, it was going to be in this area. It couldn’t just be something I did on the side. I wondered how could I marry my skills and business background with my heart for saving these girls from slavery. We started my current company as a nonprofit, and then I got very involved raising our family. I later bought the business from the nonprofit and founded Sudara as a B-Corporation, a structure that requires us to prove our business benefits those in need. We also retained a nonprofit so that it could function better, separate from the business.”
After their mission work locally and abroad, Jeff and Shannon realized their shared passions uniquely united them. They were engaged for six months and married in 2000. Jeff served as a minister in two California churches for several years, got a degree in global leadership, and moved to Bend in 2006 to found River Church. Their first children, girl-boy twins Siena and Jackson, were born shortly thereafter.
When their third child, Clancey, went to pre-school, Shannon began to work more intentionally on the International Princess Project. Jeff was inspired to redirect his passion for justice into a nonprofit that would work offensively and defensively to end human trafficking in the U.S.
A former Air Force vet, Jeff founded Guardian Group in 2010, intending to hire specially trained ex-military personnel to partner with criminal justice workers to bring pimps and predators to justice. His team is part of a larger anti-trafficking network and Guardian Group members work on leads locally, nationally and internationally. To increase awareness of the crime among hotel and travel industry workers, those closest to where crimes occurred, Jeff and his team developed the acclaimed Guardian Seal Training, which is being adopted by large hotel chains and travel-related businesses.
As dedicated as they are to their professional endeavors, Shannon and Jeff are equally intentional about their family. Shannon starts her work days at 6:30am so she can spend the afternoons with her kids after school.
Jeff says, “I pursue my kids. They want parents who enter conversations with them. They see us working hard, but we can have a life of harmony.
“We play hard. We go adventuring, travel, eat diverse food, learn new things, get outdoors. We now know how to shut it off.
“We want to take them to India so they can see how the rest of the world lives. It’s wonderful to see them observing life through the eyes of justice and grace and selflessness.”
While Jeff and Shannon have had noteworthy success with their organizations, their work comes with a great deal of sacrifice, in terms of limited income, personal time and time with friends. Shannon quit a lucrative corporate career to start her nonprofit and Jeff founded Guardian Group without a focus upon monetary gain. “What we’ve taken on is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle,” says Jeff.
“In my nonprofit work, I’ve learned to give away success, own up to hardships. Endure through things. Welcome the suck — just to be at peace with that. God always provides. Other people help in a huge way, and our families and friends are so generous to us.”
Shannon adds, “You wonder, is this ever going to get traction? All of that tilling the very rough soil, hitting rocks and then you finally see a little new growth. That seed really did sprout!”
When asked about their accomplishments, which are couched in humility, the results Shannon and Jeff have achieved in just a few years at Sudara and Guardian Group, respectively, are astonishing.
Shannon comments, “What began as an inspiration is now ten years old. The business employs a team of 20 here in the U.S. and has helped create 200 jobs in India. Sudara’s growth means continued freedom for young women overseas, as they use their sewing skills to build new lives for themselves and their families.”
Jeff teared up as he shared that his five-member staff, which has worked, as he does, without pay for months and in some cases, years, has just been paid for the first time. “My staff has sacrificed and their families have sacrificed, both while they have worked for us and in their tours of duty. Guardian Group provides not just a job, but a next season of their life.
“Our team, paid and volunteer, is so accomplished in their fields. It challenges me daily to be a leader of world-class leaders. I love that we help transition vets to new careers that take advantage of their exceptional skills. We are a force multiplier, helping law enforcement, district attorneys and task forces have success, and with that success more victims are going to be helped.”
In addition to Jeff, Guardian Group is honored by the talents of the U.S. Special Forces community, while Lead Engagement Officer Alex Dugan connects the organization to the community.
The organization’s Guardian Seal Training is now being offered at hotels across the country, including the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Intercontinental Hotel Group and the Marriott chain of 22 hotels in Portland.
Jeff says, “Guardian Seal Trainings will start to have that multiplier effect, too. More people knowing what to look for in trafficking will create more leads, more arrests and more girls freed.”
In the first six months of 2017, Guardian Group hosted 14 training sessions, 38 hotels were certified safe and 720 professionals were trained.This spring, Jeff testified alongside Jason Brandt, president and CEO of Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA), in support of three separate anti sex trafficking bills presented to the House Judiciary Committee in Salem, Oregon.
Guardian Group has presented at a variety of leadership conferences this year including BreakLine Veterans Program in San Francisco, California, Stanford Business School in Palo Alto, California, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Business School. The organization is working with MIT on innovative technology to fight the fastest growing crime in the world. Local businesses, the Maybelle Clark McDonald Fund and Global Risk Advisors, have joined as sponsors and Google is on board as a partner.
Sadly, but significantly, human trafficking is now household vernacular. According to metrics collected by Guardian Group, over 130 girls are being trafficked right here in Central Oregon and the average age of entry into trafficking is 13. It will take more than the dedication of these two community heroes, their teams and partners, to stem that tide here and abroad, but Jeff and Shannon Keith will be at the forefront of the fight, with the release of each victim renewing them for the long road ahead.