Food cart gives human trafficking survivors a new life on the street
Barbara Freeman rattled off the date as easily as her birthday.
"April 8, 2009." It was the last day she had stepped into a stranger's car, the last time she had put a price on her body.
The undercover officer had asked her why she was strolling Cleveland Avenue, looking for clients.
"I feel worthless," she had told him. "I've been trapped for so long, I don't know how to get out."
But she did get out. The woman, who once slept with men for crack, who was raped and assaulted dozens of times, has brighter days ahead.
"I got my own place, my own car. I have my license. I have insurance," she said, smiling proudly. "I'm a taxpayer."
Freeman is one of 10 women who run a food cart called Freedom a la Cart. The business is part of Doma, a nonprofit organization that helps survivors of human trafficking.
Barbara Freeman hugs Christina Conrad, left, after preparing a sandwich for her at Freedom a la Cart, which is run by survivors of human trafficking and owned by the nonprofit organization Doma. Freeman is one of 10 women who work at the cart. Photo by NEAL C. LAURON | DISPATCH
Many days during lunch, the cart is parked outside the Franklin County Municipal Court, the same building where many of the women once stood before a judge.
The food cart has been operating since January and, so far, it has broken even, said director Julie Clark. In addition to serving Downtown, the women have been catering at weddings, news conferences and business events.
It's a good sign for the nonprofit group, Clark said. If business keeps up, Doma wants to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant that can employ even more survivors.
"From a young age, as we're all baby-sitting and learning job skills, these women are being trafficked, and most of them are addicts as well," Clark said. "They get a job and, next thing you know, it's not a successful transition."
Freedom a la Cart teaches the women the basics of being in the work force, such as kitchen prep and business management. For some, it is their first time chopping onions or squeezing lemons, said chef Lara Yazvac.
Each meal served comes with a pamphlet on human trafficking. All proceeds go to helping victims.
"For the first time in their life, they have a true support network and people who care about them," Yazvac said. "We're not just giving them job skills or a social enterprise - we're exposing them to a world the rest of us know, where people actually help each other sometimes."
Freeman grew up in a violent neighborhood with an abusive stepfather. As a teenager, her rebellion led her to alcohol and marijuana. "Friendships" with the wrong men paved the way to crack, something she began smoking every week at age 16.
Before long, she was stealing to feed her addiction and leaving her young children home alone. She turned to prostitution and worked for a pimp for promises of a continuous drug supply.
She was arrested 25 times and went to prison four times. She described her first rape as "the most terrifying night of my life."
During her last stint in prison, her mother said she would no longer be bringing her four children to see her.
"I lost everything," Freeman said.
In June 2011, she graduated from Catch Court, a program through Doma and Franklin County Municipal Court that requires women to get treatment for their drug addictions.
She now has a healthy relationship with her four daughters. She got her first driver's license in September. She has been speaking to schools and churches about her life and how she turned it around.
The food cart provides a different view of the courthouse from what Freeman is used to. She's generous with smiles and stories, sharing her experience with anyone who asks.
When she drives down the street and sees a woman who has relapsed, she stops her car.
"I let them know it's not too late," she said. "If you still have another breath in your body, you can have a new life."