Rockford boutique making a difference
It is easy to be shocked and dismayed by the many heartbreaking stories of human tragedy, but at WAR Chest boutique, now open at 25 S. Squire Street, the HOPE side of empowering women is clearly evident. WAR stands for Women at Risk and is an international non-profit organization that was started by a woman who now calls Rockford home. As a teen, however, she was the daughter of a doctor in Bangladesh and was witness to a girl her own age who had had acid poured down her throat because she resisted being raped. It was a moment that defined Becky McDonald, who vowed to make it her life’s work to help women and children escape such horrors.
At War Chest in Rockford, store manager Tricia DeKorne shares the passion and impact behind the items sold in the shop. She said McDonald realized it was not enough to get women out of situations where they are being exploited if you don’t also provide them with an avenue by which they can be self-supporting. “Ninety percent of women not given employment go back in,” she said. The wares on the shelves and racks of War Chest are evidence of a successful transformation from object of brutality to a woman with the ability to control her own fate.
In November 2008, Women At Risk (WAR) International opened the first War Chest Boutique at 119 Courtland in Rockford. The vision of Becky McDonald, WAR International originally partnered with 14 countries. Today, WAR International partners with over 30 countries, including eight safe houses in the United States, two of which are in Michigan. War Chest sells products made by women who either sell them to the organization or are paid an hourly wage for work in producing the products. The items are also beautiful and extremely well made.
“Sales from the Rockford boutique have supported over 3,500 women in the four years since it opened,” says Jessica Rowland of WAR International. “It takes approximately $250 per month to support a woman and her children.”
Although it is easy to believe atrocities do not happen in our own back yard, The FBI estimates as many as 300,000 children in the United States are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation. A recent National Public Radio program discussed the importance of fighting the enslavement of children and young girls for prostitution here in Michigan. The issue is of such importance for state officials in Michigan that a major task force has been working to arrest child slavers and change laws so that punishments more accurately affect the horrific reality of the crime.
“It shocks people to hear that sex trafficking is happening within our own borders,” says Rowland. According to the US State Department, an estimated 2,400 children are living as slaves in West Michigan. Even more disturbing, nine out of ten sex trafficking victims are American middle school children.
Chloe (not her real name) was exploited by her own father starting around age three. It wasn’t long before Chloe’s father regularly trafficked her to other men to pay off his debts. They threatened to kill her if she told anyone. At age nine, Chloe got up the courage to demand that she be allowed to go live with her mother or she would tell what was going on. Her father let her go, but their home was continually broken into as a reminder to Chloe to keep quiet. When Chloe was 13, she finally told her mother what had been happening. Her mother promptly called the police who did nothing. Two years later, to the day, her father broke into their home and drugged and raped her as punishment for speaking out.
Chloe and her mom are living in a safe house in Michigan. Chloe started a business making sugar scrubs to pay for her online high school education. Her sugar scrubs are only one of the many products available at the War Chest Boutique. You will also discover beautiful handcrafted jewelry, scarves, purses, select clothing, books, cards, and toys.
Theresa, another victim of sex trafficking, was drugged and raped at age 15 by a popular boy at school. His ‘cousins’ took pictures and she was blackmailed for two years while she lived under her parents’ roof. Under threat of the pictures being sent to her father’s employer and to the Catholic parish they attended, she was coerced into having sex with clients they set her up with. During that time, she was tortured, her dog was shot, and one night she was left for dead on a country road as reminders to keep quiet. She was finally able to escape this nightmare when her father’s job took the family to another city when Theresa was seventeen. Her complete story can be found in The Slave Across the Street.
We are appalled when we hear this happening in our own area, but girls have been exploited around the world for centuries. Thom, a 17 year old girl in Thailand, was forced by her mother to work in the red light district as a “sexy girl” at a bar and have sex with unscrupulous men. When staff from a Thai safe house befriended her, she eventually trusted them enough to escape the life she hated and today is a beautiful model of redemption in a world gone horribly wrong. Thom learned English and discovered her natural talent as a jewelry designer. She was able to start a new life for herself as well as her mother and daughter. Her original designs are featured at the War Chest Boutique.
How can people in West Michigan get involved? Shop at the War Chest Boutique’s new location at 25 S. Squire St in Rockford. Or visit their main store at 2790 44th St in Wyoming (near RiverTown Crossings Mall). Over one thousand volunteers are needed to sort and organize product. In 2012, volunteers put in over 17,000 hours to ensure that profits from sale of items sold in the store go back to support the women and children who created them.
You can also inquire about hosting a private shopping event for your friends and family. A staff member will speak to your group about the efforts of WAR International and how it partners with organizations locally and internationally to empower disadvantaged women and children to start small businesses.
Safe houses offer women a clean and safe work environment where they are paid comparable to the minimum wage earned by a college graduate. This gives each woman dignity by being able to support herself. Even though they are paid for a 40 hour work week, mornings are spent studying for the GED and the afternoons are spent making jewelry and other hand-crafted items. In addition, they receive free health care, child care, counseling, meals, and college scholarships.
Two new programs – “Garments of Praise” and “Garments of Dignity” help women and orphans in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Your donated formal dresses support women running a formal dress rental shop and your new packages of baby ‘onesies’ and children’s underwear give dignity to children living in an orphanage.