Amid multiple COVID pivots, Freedom a la Cart hosts 'EmpowHER' event

Joel Oliphint
A rendering of the new Downtown Freedom a la Cart cafe and bakery at 123 E. Spring St., due to open in early March.

Paula Haines, CEO of Freedom a la Cart, had always wanted to host an event that brought together women of all different backgrounds — some who support the catering company and workforce development program as donors and supporters, and others who are survivors of human trafficking and benefit from the services Freedom a la Cart provides.

“I just love that energy when people are together, and you have someone speaking a message of resiliency and empowerment, and everyone leaves with this feeling of unity and ‘we can conquer the world,’” Haines said. “I think that's an important message to give our survivors — that these other women in the community are supporting them and believe in them.”

Haines turned the idea into a virtual event, “EmpowHER,” which takes place today (Wednesday, Jan. 27) at 11:45 a.m. (tickets available here). The luncheon’s featured speaker is Rebecca Bender, a human trafficking survivor and founder of Elevate Academy, an online school for human trafficking survivors. Haines found Bender’s video blog that dispels myths about human trafficking and loved her approach to the topic.

“When we talk about human trafficking, people have a picture in their mind of what that victim looks like,” Haines said. “It's always exciting for me to help break that stereotype and let them see what a real victim looks like. It looks like your mom or your sister or your aunt or your daughter. It looks just like anyone on the street. I think that's an important message to share, and I think Rebecca will be able to deliver that.”

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While the event is virtual and will be livestreamed from Freedom a la Cart’s new location, Bender is coming to Columbus to meet with survivors in socially distanced small groups to teach them leadership skills. As a bonus, virtual attendees will also get a sneak peek of the catering company’s forthcoming flagship bakery and café at 123 E. Spring St. Haines said the Downtown location will undergo a soft launch in February followed by a hoped-for early March public opening. “There have been all kinds of hiccups along the way. I think we're on about plan E or F now of the move,” Haines said.

Last year, Freedom a la Cart had to postpone its annual fundraiser, Eat Up Columbus, and later moved the event online, dubbing the pandemic version Eat in Columbus. Haines has had to make other COVID-related pivots, too, but some have been blessings in disguise. Freedom a la Cart launched a meal-kit delivery service, Freedom at Home, a subscription model that brings prepped meals to customers’ door once a week. “That fresh, delicious food helps provide employment for survivors of human trafficking,” Haines said. “It’s something that we will continue to do even after COVID because it's been a nice success for us.”

Last year was Freedom a la Cart’s biggest yet. The organization provided supportive services to more than 420 human trafficking survivors. “We do more than just our workforce development and our café. We're providing services to all kinds of women that are victims or survivors of sex trafficking,” said Haines, who has been encouraged by the increase in awareness of the human trafficking issue over the past few years.

“People are aware and want to do something about it, and that's honestly how I got involved. It was just attending an informational workshop and realizing, ‘Oh, my gosh. I didn't know this was happening. How can I help?'” she said. “As awareness grows, you see more and more people stepping up and wanting to help. And that's how we're going to solve this problem.” 

Freedom a la Cart CEO Paula Haines