Freedom a la cart is a Columbus based organization that provides support services and workforce training for human trafficking survivors so they have a chance to build a new life of freedom and employment sustainability. Survivors learn life and practical job skills through their support services and workforce development program. Some survivors work in their catering business, preparing fresh and flavorful cuisines and baking the most amazing cookies I’ve had, which can all be ordered online. Founded in 2009 by Julie Clark, the social enterprise has gone from what was once a single food cart to a full catering service and soon, a brick and mortar flagship café.
Paula Haines, the executive director of Freedom a la cart, is passionate about the organization’s mission and their food. I had the opportunity to meet Paula over lunch and talk about what Freedom a la cart provides for the survivors, the success rate (which is inspirational) and of course, the food (which is delicious). These ladies know how to work their magic in the kitchen and for the second year in a row, brought home the crown in the Taste of Columbus gala hosted by Children’s Hunger Alliance.
Rick: Let’s start from the very beginning. How did Freedom A La Cart get established?
Paula: Julie Clark, our founder, and her husband started Doma International in 2008 and it was an attempt to help children around the country find homes. The word doma means home and so they were really working internationally and doing mission trips working with orphans around the world. And then in 2009, when Judge Paul Herbert established Catch Court (a rehabilitation program for sex trafficking victims), Julie focused on working with the sex trafficking victims to fill the void between restoration and economic independence and purchased a food cart as a workforce training tool.
Rick: You went from one single food cart to a full-service catering company and a mini café in the library. How did you get there?
Paula: Slowly over time, the food cart turned into a catering service organically because of the seasonality and the limitations as far as how much capacity you have. The challenge with the food cart is the difficulty in gauging how much we were going to sell in a day, so there’s a lot of waste. With catering, you eliminate the waste and know exactly what the order is and how much you need to produce, and so that helped us along.
Julie always had a vision of opening a café and so we’ve been working towards that slowly. Over the past two years, we’ve been raising money and have actually looked at two different café locations. Last year, when the opportunity came and the friends of Columbus Metropolitan Library reached out to us and asked if we would submit an RFP and consider operating out of that location, we thought, Wow, this is a great opportunity to test the waters. We could learn a little bit, build our brand, and get our name out there to the public. It was a low-risk opportunity. It took some capital, but not as much as opening a full-fledged café.
What we learned is that our program works best under one roof. We thought that when the survivors get to a certain level, we would be able to transition them to the café. The size and volume of the cafe posed a challenge as we can only staff one person in that location. Additionally, we weren’t able to get someone confident enough and ready to manage the cafe by herself. There’s just a lot that we offer within our facility that we’d lose outside the walls, so we won’t be continuing that model anywhere else. We are looking to continue opening a flagship café and expanding our catering all under one roof.
Rick: Tell us about the sex trafficking issue in Columbus.
Paula: It’s real and it’s everywhere. Everyone’s story is different. Some women come from poverty and are sex trafficked by a family member at an early age. Others get coerced into it as teenagers or young adults.
The drugs are often always involved and a lot of times, the trafficker will use the drugs to manipulate the women. They find someone that is vulnerable, maybe because of their age or because of their life circumstance or where they are at the time. A lot of ladies experienced severe trauma at some point in their life and so they’re dealing with that issue as well. These traffickers see that and recognize that this is a person that is vulnerable. A lot of them might be using recreational drugs at some level and then this pimp comes along and acts as their boyfriend and wines and dines them, and then continues to introduce them to more severe drugs, eventually getting them hooked. Because once that addiction happens, you’ll do anything to get your next fix. And they know that and so the drug is withheld unless they do certain things. And that’s how that manipulation happens.
In Franklin County, there are around 1200 arrests for solicitation every year. And 92% of those we estimate are survivors of human trafficking, so that is a pretty staggering number. It’s people coming through the system multiple times. The average age in Columbus where people are first trafficked is 13. There are lots of children. Children are a whole another game. We only work with adults. We have them from about 20 to as old as 55, 60. Our average is 35.
The great thing about Columbus is that the judicial system and the justice are all working together. There’s a human trafficking task force in the police department that does a great job of knowing what’s happening in the city and taking responsibility for that. They make sure police officers are trained to look for trafficking and connect the victims with the different organizations that can help.
Rick: Tell us about the resources that you provide to help the survivors of human trafficking.
Paula: We have 2 branches to our organization. We have our supportive services side and our workforce development side. On the supportive services end, we are providing rides to ladies from jail to their treatment facilities when they enter the Catch program. We are providing lunches to the participants in Catch every Thursday, and breakfast every Friday. We’re providing personal mentors for each lady, organizing outings once a month so that they’re being exposed to new experiences, taking them bowling, art museums, painting classes. We’re helping them build life skills and just sitting down with them one-on-one when they need a special service.
We moved from a model of offering the survivors employment to a workforce development program, allowing us to support more ladies and touch more lives. Our workforce development program provides paid workforce training in addition to teaching the survivors financial strategies. We have a case manager on staff, who teaches them how to drive and then take them to get their driver’s test. They’re saving their money and buying their first car. We’re helping them to find housing and we furnish that first apartment for them. Just providing them with love and support and everything that they can.
We’ve just expanded into what we call the butterflies program because of the number of relapses that were happening, especially during the transition period. Addiction recovery programs take 1 to 2 years to complete, but it actually takes 2-5 years for someone experiencing severe trauma to recover. Like a teenager, once the recovery program ends, you let the bird fly, they kind of wander and they get lost and life happens. They might go through some type of a crisis and the support is gone.
The butterflies program offers that support and it’s a peer-to-peer program run by our case manager, who is a survivor herself. We do a gathering of the butterflies once a month, that’s just a social get-together, so they stay connected. And we have a once-a-month support group, which is where the women get honest with each other and open up, sharing more specifically about what’s really happening. Only another survivor of human trafficking knows the deep down stuff. At one of the support group meetings recently, someone shared that a man was flirting with her and she really didn’t know how to respond. Her first response is do I have the words prostitute written on my forehead? She starts thinking, should I be flattered, how am I supposed to respond to that? And only those women can help each other through those things, process those. So that’s what that’s for, celebrating their victories with them, going to their graduations, whatever we can do. We have an education grant that helps us to provide support for their education.
Rick: Do you provide residential services to the survivors?
Paula: We don’t provide residential services but we have relationships. There are lots of resources in the community for residential housing for those in treatment, but we’re seeing the gap is when they get out of treatment. The challenge is finding low-income housing that’s safe and not drug infested. It’s really really difficult. We’re still struggling with that. What we have done is build relationships with landlords. Our case manager, who is also a survivor, built a nice relationship with a landlord that took a chance on her. She eventually moved out because she bought her own home. Before she left, she asked her landlord if he would consider renting to the other survivors we are working with. Slowly but surely over time, we’ve been able to have our ladies lease properties from this particular landlord and it’s worked out. In one of the complexes now, there are 8 units and 4 or 5 of them have ladies in our program.
Rick: What is the success rate for survivors in your program?
Paula: Last year, we provided support to 210 survivors, 33 went through our paid workforce development program. Of those 33, 14 transitioned into employment outside of our agency. When you look at those numbers over the past 2 years, we’ve looked at success as those that have not returned to the lifestyle. Basically, if they’re back on the streets at some point they’re going to be rearrested. That’s really how we can measure that. So for the past 2 years, 85% of our ladies who have gone through the program have not been rearrested. Our goal is around 80%.
Our results are women who are living independently, living on their own, sustaining a job, paying their bills, getting off government support and rebuilding relationships, getting custody of their kids, just living independently, like that’s real success.
Rick: Are there any individual stories you want to share?
Paula: I talked to you earlier about our case manager. She started with us six years ago working in the kitchen. At first, she was very insecure, but also a very hard worker. She was later promoted to a kitchen supervisor. When we opened the case management position, she asked to be considered for that role and moved on the management team. As a result, she has since bought a house and graduated from Columbus State, is now attending Capital University. She’s just a light in the beacon and really truly has lots of gratitude and feels her mission is to help other survivors. She’s really a unique individual.
Some of these ladies are very comfortable where they are, so nudging them along can be difficult. I was talking to the ladies each individually about what their aspirations were and where they would like their life to go and how they see themselves in the future and this one, in particular, named Vivian said she wanted to learn office skills and someday be able to help her boyfriend manage the office of his business. Around the same time, a local law firm reached out to us about an office assistant opening and I thought she might be a good fit. So, we decided that they needed to interview her, just so she had that experience of the interview. They hired her and she’s been there almost a year and a half now.
After that first year, she was having some issues with computer skills because she had some traumatic brain injury and memory is a real struggle. She was also only working 2 days a week. They teach her something new one week, but a week and a half later, she would forget what it was. Something as simple as (what we could consider simple) opening a word document, making a few changes, saving it under a new file name. She was forgetting how to do these processes. So, I convinced her to come back to us for a little bit on her days off and have our case manager sit down and just repeat, repeat, repeat. She spent an hour each of those days going through these skills on the computer until it just came naturally to her. She was just missing that.
And so, I loved that we were able to have this relationship with the employer, that they reached out and said, hey Viviane is doing great, but she’s struggling in this area. Sending her off to computer class wasn’t the answer because somebody was going to tell her what to do and she needed practice in doing it. So, I loved that we were able to help her through that and send her back to work and now, she’s thriving again and they’re pleased with her performance. Our connection with the ladies doesn’t end, it continues.
Rick: Now let’s talk about the food. For the second year in a row, you took home the crown in the Taste of Columbus gala hosted by Children’s Hunger Alliance. What’s your secret?
Paula: Our secret is a combination of exceptional food and passionate ladies. Our chef spent 5 years at Pistachia Vera and so she’s excellent at pastries. She added a chocolate chip cookie and peanut butter cookie to the menu. Our cookies are not your typical cookies. The chocolate chip cookies are made with brown butter and topped with sea salt and our peanut butter cookie are made with honey roasted peanuts that we roast ourselves and add a little orange zest to give it a little zing. They’re just delicious. The first time someone comes to us, they’re going to come and appreciate that there is a nice mission and they’re supporting a purpose, but they’ll come back again and again because of the great product and that’s what we strive to do. Everything is fresh with a little twist to make it unique. Nothing too crazy.
Rick: What’s your best selling menu items?
Paula: Our most popular boxed lunches are typically the basic ones, like turkey and swiss or roast beef and cheddar and that’s because you’ve got an administrative assistant or somebody ordering for a group and choosing the basics to please everybody. Our chicken salad is phenomenal. It’s made in-house, and people love it. We do a burly bohemian, which is a fried polenta with roasted vegetables on it, which is absolutely fabulous for the vegetarians. We also do a hummus wrap with delicious grilled vegetables and a bacon caesar wrap that is popular as well. We have appetizers, dinner items, desserts if somebody is looking more for a meal or cocktail party. Minimum order is 10 people or $100.
Rick: You offer volunteer opportunities. Can you tell us how people can volunteer their time?
Paula: People can volunteer by being a personal mentor, going through our mentor training program. We have volunteers that come in and work in the kitchen. We have volunteers driving the ladies, picking them up from jail and taking them to their treatment facilities. We have a team of people that put together our fundraiser every year and organize Eat Up Columbus that raised $140,000 last year for us. That takes a team of volunteers. We have volunteers that donate items for the first apartment that will pick up beds and different items and deliver them to the ladies’ houses for them. Lots of various needs and what we’ve been grateful that when there’s a special need and we put it out there to our supporters that people respond right away. We will bring in a volunteer group to help seasonal deep cleaning in the kitchen. We envision when we open our café, having volunteers in the front of the house every day to just serve as hospitality hosts. I think there will be lots more opportunities when we have that space available.
Rick: Can you tell us more about the flagship cafe?
Paula: We’ve got some locations in mind and we’re hoping the board is going to make a decision the first of the year. We plan to operate just the catering service for the first few months at the new location to get accustomed to it then open the café part in the Spring. The other thing that excites me about having a café is just being the beacon of light and hope that other survivors can see. If they’re in the street, they can see this physical place and know that the survivors inside are people that have been like them. Perhaps even think that could be me and see that as an opportunity. It gives me goosebumps to think this may happen.
Click on the links below for further information about how you can volunteer, donate, purchase delicious meals or would like more information about Freedom a la Cart: