SIX years have passed since Melissa Histon embarked on a life-changing trip to Nepal.
While working as a photographer alongside a documentary film crew from Newcastle, she came face-to-face with the country's human trafficking crisis, where as many as 50 women and young girls are trafficked into India every day.
Travelling through remote areas, she met women as young as 15 who described the shocking abuse they suffered before being rescued by charity organisation, Three Angels Nepal, which assists Nepali women to rehabilitate their lives.
"When I went there, I didn't know much about it at all," says Histon, who has since returned to Nepal twice to volunteer with organisation Habitat For Humanity. "We went to one village and there were no teenage girls left. They had all been sold off by the village chief to traffickers.
"Hearing the stories of these girls and young women, it was horrific. The abuse they had experienced, being raped and drugged and tortured, caged and put into brothels ... it was heart-wrenching.
"There was one girl who told us she was told she was going to marry an Indian man, so she thought she would have this amazing life. She was actually tied to a bed and raped every day, and his parents would beat her. They enabled that."
Six years on, Histon's life has changed dramatically since that trip.
She has become a recognisable figure in the Newcastle community thanks to her role as the founder of online community The Sista Code and, most notably, its offshoot Got Your Back Sista, the charitable organisation that has a clear message: violence against women is not acceptable.
Since launching the not-for-profit charity in 2016, Histon has helped hundreds of domestic violence victims from the Hunter rebuild their lives.
And it all stems back to those two weeks she spent in Nepal.
When she returned home to Newcastle, Histon's experience in Nepal consumed her.
She felt a sense of guilt.
"When you hear those stories, you think 'How lucky am I?'," Histon says. "I got breast cancer at 35 and I'm still living. I have a good family, I have a good husband, I live in a good city. I had this sense of purpose, you know? You don't come back and just forget about that."
With a background in marketing and communications, Histon used her skills as a writer and photographer to create an online space for women to share inspiring stories. The Sista Code began in 2014 as a Facebook page which quickly gained traction and led to the creation of a website and blog.
"I don't know if it was especially good, but I was just trying to share stories of work that other charities were doing," she says. "It was about empowering women, really."
Empowering women is at the core of everything she has created with both The Sista Code and Got Your Back Sista.
In her first year with The Sista Code, Histon organised a fund-raiser in support of women's domestic violence support service Jenny's Place.
Even still, she felt like she had more to do.
She applied to take part in a leadership program hosted by Business Chicks held on Sir Richard Branson's Necker Island in the Caribbean where she listened to speakers including Business Chicks founder Emma Isaacs, author Marianne Williamson, and Branson.
"At that point, I was thinking 'OK, I'm doing this feel-good work around sharing stories and organising fund-raiser events to empower women' but I wasn't sure which way The Sista Code would go," she says. "I spent those four days really listening to the speakers and hanging out with some amazing people who are doing amazing things in the world.
"I still felt quite lost, but being around those people, they are all about the purpose that they are bringing into this world. Being around that, it shifts your thinking."
She returned last year, meeting The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck author Mark Manson, and actor-activist Alyssa Milano (who shared her story about starting the #MeToo movement and spoke with Histon about the work she does and the importance of putting the issue at the forefront).
The seed was planted for Got Your Back Sista shortly after that first trip to Necker Island. She sat on the idea for about six months and, in the meantime, organised a statewide donation drive for refugees.
"That was kind of a catalyst. There are women being abused in Nepal, but there are women in our own community who are experiencing horrendous abuse and domestic violence," she says.
"I went around and met with various services like Jenny's Place and I asked 'Where are the gaps?'. The immediate feedback was when a woman is leaving a violent home, she needs help setting up a new home, because that can be a real barrier for her getting out of the situation.
"I registered the charity [in 2016] and then called it Got Your Back Sista."
For the first year, Histon worked out of her home at The Junction, providing furniture and household items via referral to women escaping domestic violence. She juggled her photography business at the same time.
"Those days were hectic because it was just all me and then my sister-in-law doing the bookkeeping," Histon recalls. "Our house was like a storage shed. It was full-on. By the end of the year, I was thinking: 'I'm going to have a breakdown here', but you have to start somewhere."
Now, Got Your Back Sista has a permanent space in Tighes Hill and Histon works alongside two-part time employees and contractors. The charity has raised more than $490,000 in four years (not including corporate grants and community campaign sponsors).
It offers a range of programs, ranging from self defence, mentoring and re-skilling, along with a weekly empowerment circle, all of which aim to rebuild confidence and allow women to feel stronger, both mentally and physically, in a non-judgemental environment.
"It's about having the right people involved, to be honest, and we've been very fortunate that the people we have engaged are really kind, welcoming and nurturing people," she says.
"That has been something from the outset when anybody gets on board is to know that this is a place where people are welcome and nurtured. So you can't judge people, you have to walk beside them and be there for them when they need you."
Got Your Back Sista has provided household items for 208 women in four years, while 178 have taken part in the self defence program since it was introduced two years ago. The charity has also helped to create three women's shelters.
Women that have engaged the services range age from 17 to 75, with around eight women a week attending their drop-in support group.
"There was one woman who came to do our empowerment circle and, in the very first session, she had a massive breakdown," Histon recalls. "Her husband had been violent to her, he had cheated on her and left her. She had gone overseas for a week to visit family and when she came back he declared they had separated and had moved her out. She had to fight to get her little boy back. So, when we met her, her life as she knew it was destroyed.
"I'd see her come each week and she managed to get her little boy back, she managed to get work. She had to go to a refuge because he had left her with nothing. One day, after about six months, she walked in and she was glowing. I looked at her and we said 'You are a different person'.
"For me, that's why we are here."
Histon's dedication to the cause is a full-time commitment. She speaks passionately about the work she does and actively promotes the charity any chance she gets.
Fresh from a trip to Broome for a Business Chicks conference, Histon landed home on Sunday and that evening appeared as a guest speaker for non-profit She The Change before waking up early the next day for a spot on morning radio to talk about domestic violence.
The charity services the Hunter, Central Coast and Manning regions, with plans to extend to Mudgee in early 2020.
Got Your Back Sista is in the process of opening an op shop in Islington and, in 2020, Histon will embark on a trek through Tuscany with 20-strong team to raise money for the charity.
Does she sleep?
"No," she answers, with a laugh. "To be honest, that's my life. I wouldn't have it any other way though. But I don't sleep, I lie in bed thinking 'Okay, gotta do to the op shop, gotta organise the trip out to Mudgee, gotta do the podcast, gotta get that thing up on social media'. That's kind of how it goes."
Raising awareness that violence against women is not acceptable is the goal.
Histon says education and exposure is key in order for things to change, so events such as the half-time activation, which they have staged at Newcastle Knights' home games for the past three years, are pivotal.
"One of the things we decided in our first year was that it was really important to shine a light on domestic violence. Because abuse thrives in silence if we don't talk about it. Fifty years ago, people didn't talk about it. They'd say 'It's not my business'," Histon says.
"My granny would tell me about her sister's husband who would get drunk and get violent. But nobody did anything, nobody said anything. The more we talk about it, the more people feel comfortable talking about it and saying: 'This is happening to me'."
THE NEXT STEP
WHEN Weekender meets with Histon, she is wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with a logo of a bee on the front and the word "kind" written underneath.
It's a mantra that drives her passion.
Her latest outlet to spread the word of kindness and female empowerment is through a podcast series, Hey Soul Sista, that features interviews with inspiring women, ranging from Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes and university senior lecturer-turned-interior stylist Naomi Findlay to Newcastle-raised TV star and psychic Jackie Gillies.
The premise is to inspire females on their journey through life.
"When I was thinking about what I wanted to do, I realised that I have got so many questions about life.
"I am still trying to figure it all out: relationships, purpose. I still go 'What do I want to be when I grow up?'. I think everybody is the same.
"I really wanted the podcast to connect with that and to say: 'Here are some interesting people and what they have done and what they have learnt from life'.
"I found it really fascinating listening to Nuatali about how she deals with being the top woman in our city. She can come up against some real vitriol on social media and I found it really interesting to hear how she deals with that.
"She said 'I am confident in my decision-making and if I believe in something, I'll back myself'. I was like 'I want a bit more of that'.
"I was really inspired by that."
Canberra-born Histon, who moved to Newcastle at age 10, recently took up an invitation to speak during an assembly at her former school, Whitebridge High. She approached the speech as a life lesson to her younger self.
"I really thought long and hard about what I was going to say because it was like an opportunity to speak to my 17-year-old self," she says.
"I talked about not being selected for first round university placements initially and then, years later, I was a finalist at the University of Newcastle alumni awards. I left high school feeling really lost and then in 2017 I was named Newcastle Woman of the Year, you know what I mean?
"My message was: 'You might not have it all figured out right now going into the HSC, but there is always time to change the road you're on'."
Histon credits her husband of 10 years Craig Browning, who runs Newcastle business OAS Computers, and their family (the couple share four children together) for having her back her along the way.
"I couldn't have done anything without good people around me," Histon says. "I have learnt the hard way that people have not always had the best intentions in terms of wanting to befriend me. But I have had some really good people around me that, when I doubt myself, encourage me.
"That's what you need: a really good cheer squad."
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