Former Chicago business woman hopes to make a difference

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DeAnne Wingate with some of the children she met in her work.

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“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

-- Mahatma Gandhi

Sometimes it's only when the road ahead appears to be smooth and wide open that we find ourselves navigating convoluted detours. You think your career is headed in one direction when all of the sudden you find yourself taking inventory of everything you found to be true and of value.

In August we inadvertently made the acquaintance of De Anne Wingate, 39, and determined hers was a journey worth sharing.

Like so many of us, Wingate was in the throes of cultivating her career when she started questioning if all the hard work and endless hours she was devoting to her lucrative and successful media job were worth it.

"Every day my focus was on helping the company increase its revenue ... and I was very good at it ... but I wasn't using my full potential to make a difference in the world," she said. "I was empty. After working 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. five days a week for so many years, I needed to restore my spirit. Only then are you truly open to another path."

Wingate would nostalgically reflect on her time as an undergrad when she spent a month in Guatemala establishing a medical clinic and another in the Dominican Republic building a community center. Her eyes were opened.

"The people had absolutely nothing but radiated such joy," she said. It made a lasting mark, having been raised in entirely different circumstances in Charlotte, N.C. She felt if she could put all of her energy and talents toward philanthropy, her dream could take off.

Despite being afraid, she decided to disregard conventional wisdom, ignore advice from naysayers and follow her heart's desire to help women and children abroad overcome desperate circumstances. Doing so would mean resigning from a career she worked hard to build, selling her condo on Chicago's Gold Coast, and storing her personal property - indefinitely.

"I decided to find my calling, and through God's help relied on inner strength and took a leap of faith," said Wingate. In April 2010, she left it all behind to live for a year in Mexico.

While there, she "hung out with God," surfed, went to church, and discovered the patience needed to figure out the next chapter of her story.

When Wingate returned to the States, one chance meeting changed everything. While on a road trip, she learned of an opportunity to travel to India for a few months - working with girls and women who were part of the sex slave trade.

At first she wasn't interested. The stifling poverty, pollution and oppression of women were enough to keep her at bay.

"And then I received an e-mail from a good friend reminding me of who I was - strong, passionate and determined," she said.

Next thing Wingate knew, she was on a plane to Bangalore, one of India's largest cities.

As customary, men escort women absolutely everywhere; independence isn't an option. "I learned quickly what it felt like to be a woman who just wanted to disappear or become invisible. I knew I had to trust I was there for a reason," Wingate conceded.

She was given the complicated task of setting up an after-care program for the rescued women. Most are addicted to drugs, HIV positive or have been severely abused and tormented.

Because of stringent government requirements and limited or non-existent access to necessary resources - including mental health professionals - she was forced to adjust her plans and purpose from the get-go.

Her dream did not die, however. She met a woman who had worked with impoverished children for 10 years in India and built a preschool in a slum. Through her, Wingate found her mission and started helping at the school and tutoring.

"These poor children are not nurtured, hugged or given any affection, and their responsibilities are tremendous. Girls especially are just baggage and extra weight. They're forced to assume household chores when they are still babies themselves, waking at 4 a.m. each day to begin morning meal preparations," she said.

"[At the school] we grew hope and taught lessons beyond the textbook about loving and being good to one another. We reinforced that girls are worthy of kindness and respect - a concept foreign to the majority of boys."

Although parents are asked to pay a very small fee, the school is 100 percent reliant on donations, which help provide meals, books and other basic classroom supplies.

The wheels started turning in Wingate's head from the very start of her involvement with the children. Inspired by the book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof, she decided to put all her efforts toward creating and expanding schools in poverty-stricken areas around the globe, starting with India.

"The book discusses the oppression of women worldwide and that where there's turmoil, there's also gender inequality in education. If girls and women are afforded the opportunity to learn, countries can then transform into places of peace," she said.

Wingate returned to her hometown Charlotte with optimism, determination and a new wardrobe of brilliant tunics and pashminas - items that garnered a slew of compliments from friends and strangers.

The garments in fact provided the inspiration behind the creation of her retail company, Blessed Lotus. Through the handiwork of a group of at-risk Indian women who are paid by the piece - 100 percent of profits go directly to schools. These women also are learning to read and write - taking small steps to change their lives for the better each day.

Marketing, for now, is mostly through social media, word-of-mouth and a monthly newsletter. Trunk shows in various cities nationwide have created buzz - and through a new pilot program - Lotus Bud - the shows can be held anywhere without the need for Wingate to be physically present.

"When you buy a tunic, it's a platform. Someone will ask where it's from which offers a incredible opportunity to share the mission of giving kids hope through education and ending trafficking."

Wingate knows she has her work cut out. She'd like to get her label into boutiques across the country, believing we're all influenced on some level to buy something if it affects someone else in a profound way.

"Ultimately, I want to inspire other women who might be successful at what they do yet need a higher purpose. You can make an incredible difference in the world if you're willing to take a chance ... and take a stand."

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Jennifer Mifflin and Suzanne Witt are two Chicago-area writers on hiatus from daily assignments. When they aren't chasing terriers and a two-year-old or playing chauffeur to pre-teens, they throw caution to the wind and chronicle their journey as moms, friends and fellow neurotics on