Interview by Sarah Shumick
From a $1200 food cart purchase to more than $600,000 raised and hundreds of lives changed for the better. Paula Haines started out as a volunteer for Freedom a la Cart, an organization founded to help survivors of sex trafficking rebuild their lives. Six years later, Paula now serves as executive director for the nonprofit and is most passionate about, “Helping women who’ve been told they are unworthy discover the truth of their self-worth, love and purpose.”
Give us a brief overview of your organization: Freedom a la Cart is an innovative, nonprofit business born to empower survivors of human sex trafficking. What started as a single food cart is now a thriving catering company, grown to provide job training to survivors. We believe that women who have lived in slavery should be empowered to gain freedom through personal and economic independence. Through offering supportive services, practical life skills, paid workforce training and one-on-one case management, Freedom is a place where survivors can heal, learn and grow as they prepare to live independently in the community.
What is the mission? Freedom a la Cart empowers survivors of human trafficking to build a new life of freedom and self-sufficiency.
How you are innovating in the nonprofit space? Freedom a la Cart was one of the first organizations to work with survivors of sex trafficking. Ten years ago, we partnered with CATCH Court, a Franklin County Municipal Court specialty docket program for survivors of sex trafficking. Together we’ve developed a supportive program based on an organic response to survivors’ needs. We know that economic independence starts with a sustainable job, but human trafficking survivors face severe barriers to employment and often need more than just a job. So Freedom a la Cart launched a social enterprise to offer survivors paid workforce development and provide supportive services, life skills training, case management and employment coaching in a safe environment that is trauma informed and supports their journey of addiction recovery. We also identified a gap in services once a survivor graduates from her treatment program. So in 2017, Freedom developed the Butterfly Program – a peer-to-peer supportive community for long-term crisis prevention. The Butterfly Peer Support Program grew from 40 participants in 2017 to 77 survivors in 2018.
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? Freedom a la Cart provides supportive services to over 200 local survivors of sex trafficking each year. We launched our social enterprise seven years ago with a small food cart purchased on Ebay for $1200. Since then, we’ve employed more than 90 survivors – 59 in the last three years. Of those 59 ladies, 24 have transitioned from our program into sustainable employment in our community. 85% have not been rearrested.
What makes your organization thrive? Freedom a la Cart thrives because of the amazing team of purposeful and passionate staff and volunteers serving with grit and grace to help empower survivors to live free and independent lives.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? Our innovative ideas have transpired organically by responding to the needs of survivors. For example, our social enterprise was developed in response to the need for survivors to get job experience. Survivors of human trafficking have severe employment barriers – lack of education and work experience, criminal records, complex trauma, addiction recovery, PTSD, traumatic brain injury and more. So in order to provide jobs to survivors, we purchased a food cart and began selling fresh, delicious sandwiches on the streets in downtown Columbus. We’ve learned that true social change and empowerment happens when we invest in the workforce training, life skills and job placement assistance needed to help survivors become personally and financially self-sufficient
Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? I started at Freedom a la Cart as a volunteer in 2013. Then became a board member and founder of the Eat Up! Columbus fundraising event which has raised over $600,000 for Freedom in its five years. In 2016, I stepped off the board to serve as the interim Executive Director and found the position to be a culmination of my passion, business experience, skill sets and new sense of purpose. After a month, I agreed to leave my business (a boutique marketing agency I had operated for ten years) to serve as the permanent ED of Freedom.
What is the one thing you are most passionate about? Helping women who’ve been told they are unworthy discover the truth of their self-worth, love and purpose.
Who inspires you? I am inspired each time I hear one of the resilient survivors in our program tell her story of perseverance, transformation and restoration.
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? I stay motived by celebrating with a woman as she earns her first paycheck, gets her driver’s license, moves into her first apartment, buys a car, or lands her dream job. As women gain confidence and start to see their lives transform, I want to continue to help them live to their fullest potential.
What struggles or adversities have you had to overcome to get to where you are today? When my husband and I started our marketing agency we had one large client. When that client unexpectedly fired us, we could no longer afford our design team, so I went to work teaching myself the design and website development programs (Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, WordPress) and we rebuilt the business. I learned that if I didn’t know how to do something, I could use resources to educate myself and figure it out. And I learned to just keep taking the next step to move forward. That’s the approach we take at Freedom.
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? Like any business, nonprofits should always be searching for ways to increase efficiency and impact. Two key objectives that I feel more nonprofits should consider are: 1) moving vulnerable people past dependence on relief (charity) and into economic self-sufficiency through gaining life skills training AND workforce development: and 2) developing a social enterprise model that provides net profit to support programming so the nonprofit is sustainable and not heavily dependent on grant funding.
As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? As a young girl, I wanted to be an airline stewardess so I could travel the country and see the world!
What might others be surprised to know about you? People might be surprised to know that I travel in an Airstream Motorhome, so I did become a stewardess of sorts. We first owned an Airstream when our kids were young and we took several 4-6 week cross country trips. A few years ago, my husband, Jerry, and I bought another – a 1988 Classic Airstream Motorhome – and it’s currently undergoing a compete restoration. We named her ‘Rosie’ and hope to be traveling the country again soon in our “silver bullet” mobile condo.
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? There are several ways to support the resilient women of Freedom toward restoration and self-sufficiency. 1) Your gift of $50 provides supportive services to one survivor for a month. 2) Volunteer with us by becoming a mentor, bringing meals to CATCH Court or helping in our kitchen. 3) Select Freedom a la Cart to cater your next event. Donate, volunteer and order at freedomalacart.org.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? I’d say the pulse of Columbus is its people. Everyone talks about how friendly the people of Columbus are. This is true! But what’s more compelling to me is the compassion of the community. When I began working with Freedom a la Cart, I was overwhelmed by the generosity and compassion of the people in this amazing city. It’s because of the support of the people of Columbus that organizations like Freedom a la Cart are able to make a life-changing impact on the lives of others. The people are the heartbeat of Columbus.