Combatting COVID – How Women Warriors Are Winning the Battle
From October 2019-October 2020, we will be featuring a special guest blogger once a month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
This month we are excited to share a post from Paula Haines, the CEO of Freedom a la Cart, a nonprofit that provides survivors of sex trafficking with long-term supportive services and paid workforce training through their catering and meal kits social enterprise. Paula has written about her experiences at Freedom a la Cart during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can learn more about the blog series here. Paula was also recently featured in a panel discussion hosted by the Ohio History Conneciton. Watch that here.
COVID-19 became real to me on Tuesday, March 3, 2020. I received a text from a team member: “Dewine just canceled the Arnold.”
To be honest, I was thrilled!
One of our business’ biggest wholesale accounts is a vendor in the Columbus Convention Center. So although the cancellation of the Arnold Classic would have a negative impact on our social enterprise sales, I knew it would save many women from being brought into Columbus to be trafficked for sex during the event.
Yes. Sad but true. The Arnold Classic is the largest attraction for sex trafficking in Ohio. Unfortunately, where groups of men are gathered, women are bought and sold for sex. I was thrilled that this would not be the case in 2020. Even though our business would be negatively impacted, I was thankful it was canceled.
I never imagined the cancelation of this international event was just a small hint of what was soon to follow.
A few weeks later on March 12th it all became very real with the announcement of the state mandated ban on large gatherings. Our catering orders began dropping like flies. The daily 2 PM COVID-19 press conferences with Governor Dewine and Ohio Department of Health Director, Dr. Amy Acton, quickly became routine viewing for us all.
Because our catering social enterprise focuses on providing boxed lunches to corporate meetings and business events, we knew the ban on group gatherings and subsequent rise in remote work settings was going to be detrimental to our revenue, and overall operation. As a workforce development program, the loss of business would likely transfer into an immediate loss of work hours for the survivors in our workforce development program. But because survivors of sex trafficking have higher levels of fear, are more isolated, and have greater trauma and mental health needs than other victims of crime, we knew that providing a consistent work schedule with sustainable pay during this time of ambiguity was vital to each survivor’s stability and rehabilitation.
So when another nonprofit leader reached out to inquire about partnering together to provide meals for the most vulnerable in our city, a light bulb went off. We quickly reduced our gourmet box lunch product into a basic, but still delicious, sack meal created to nourish our community. We partnered with local agencies and churches to purchase and distribute the meals. We also launched a Nourish Our Community fund that raised over $50,000 in grants and donations to deliver the meals to over 875 survivors and their children each week and served as a weekly check-in opportunity. The staff rallied together and found personal satisfaction in feeding our vulnerable friends in the community. To add an extra layer of support, we began having AA meetings during work hours, and offered paid virtual counseling sessions.
When the stay-at-home order ended and grant funds were extinguished in June, we were once again faced with the same big challenge. Large groups were not gathering. People were still working remotely. Catering was not going to return at the same level. Now, how are we going to fill this revenue gap and keep these survivors employed?
We reviewed our business operation and workforce program, and evaluated what was happening in the food industry and in our personal lives. Restaurants were shifting to carryout & delivery. We were all cooking more at home. As a dropoff caterer, we delivered cold meals, not hot. We were set up to take orders 48-hours in advance, not on the fly.
We landed on meal kits. In our competitive analysis, we saw an opportunity in offering a meal kit that was fully prepped, and not simply ingredients and a recipe. So in mid-July, Freedom a la Cart introduced “Freedom at Home” — a chef designed, subscription based, weekly meal delivery service. Each meal prepped by the free women of Freedom a la Cart and ready to cook and enjoy in less than 30-minutes!
Our goal is to reach 250 2-serving subscriptions by year-end and maintain that level of service as a sustainable supplement to our catering operation.
While our staff AA meetings have continued successfully, we found that doing counseling virtually was just not viable for our women. So we’ve partnered with Clarity Ohio counseling service and began providing on-site counseling during working hours for staff members in our program.
In July, we also surpassed the halfway point in our capital campaign. And in August, began renovations on a downtown location that will house a commercial kitchen for our catering and meal kit business along with a new Freedom a la Cart cafÃ© + first-of-its-kind survivor resource center called the “Freedom Center.” The Freedom a la Cart cafÃ© and Freedom Center are expected to open in January 2021 during Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED FROM COVID?
As an organization serving survivors of human trafficking, we are responding to the unexpected every day! The COVID crisis has just affirmed that we are indeed survivors. But not just survivors; we’re thrivers! We are resilient women capable of facing unimaginable challenges placed before us.
Paula Haines is the CEO of Freedom a la Cart. This nonprofit provides survivors of sex trafficking with long-term supportive services and paid workforce training through their catering and meal kits social enterprise. Since launching, they’ve employed more than 125 survivors- 75 in the last four years. Their work focuses on empowering women and is changing how victims of sex trafficking are treated in the courts and by the media. In January 2021, Freedom a la Cart will be opening a cafÃ© in downtown Columbus and the first-of-its-kind survivor resource center — the Freedom Center.