JACKSONVILLE (FOX 13) - Human trafficking happens right here in Florida, and on the streets of Tampa.
More than 90 percent of women engaged in prostitution say they'd leave if they had access to counseling, treatment for addiction and jobs, and a unique career training center is helping women with just that.
What if the scarf, earrings, handbag or necklace you bought had a story beyond the shop?
"I got beat up by two guys in a hotel room… they fractured my cheekbone… I was taken to several different hotels, transported by this guy,” explained a victim of human trafficking. We’re calling her Alyssa. “He put me on crack cocaine so he could make me withdraw and beg for more crack."
Alyssa endured these horrors starting at the age of 15, but today she’s stitching her way to a new life.
“[If you] go back five years and you said, ‘Where would you be today?’ I would say either in prison or dead,” Alyssa explained. “I was in jail two years. Then thru the thick glass, my mother visited and she told me about Rethreaded.”
At Rethreaded, women like Alyssa are given an opportunity to leave a life of sex work and human trafficking and go from chaos to career by working for a business that turns old t-shirts into new accessories.
“It was just chaos. All the time, chaos and fear and shame and violence,” another victim we’re calling Jamie said. “There was this overwhelming sense of, ‘How could anyone love me after the places I’ve been?’”
Jaime felt she would be trapped in trafficking forever, but Alyssa and Jamie are among 18 survivors working together, with the help of Kristen Keen, the founder of Rethreaded.
Keen opened a warehouse and gift shop in Jacksonville to provide employment to women looking to redefine themselves.
“100% of our women come from severe trauma, and 100% of our women come from addiction. Two very powerful things to break,” Keen told FOX 13 News.
“This is one of best sellers, the Hope Bracelet,” she said pointing to a row of colorful bracelets on a display. “A simple string - this is how we pay for training. One bracelet for one hour of training when a woman first comes.”
Those women now work in finance, administration, inventory, sales and marketing.
“They have marketable job skills. They're healed. They’re whole. They're empowered and they can go off and get a good job and the cycle is done – it’s broken,” Keen said.
The business depends on fundraising and donations, like seat covers donated by Southwest Airlines, with suede fabric on one side, which can be used to make accessories.
And, of course, customers shopping for something that means a little more than your average bangle or bag, complete the circle to break the cycle.
“When I see women wearing scarves, it's like them saying, ‘It's not ok. It's not okay what happened to you. That it’s still happening to other women, and even if this is the only contribution I can make, I’m doing something to end human trafficking,’” Jamie said. “I like sharing the hope in my story. I was a victim. That doesn't make me who I am today. [I am] more than a victim or survivor. I am a mother. I am an employee at Rethreaded. I am a good person. My past doesn't define me.”
Rethreaded calls the scarves the women make grace scarves, transforming a little piece of what they used to bento brightness.
“I know what tomorrow holds. I know what I’m going to do. I’m so confident and I say, ‘OK, I'm happy today,’” Alyssa said.
At first, Rethreaded lost about half of the women who came to them back to their former lives. But after working with advocates to provide trauma counseling, they now have 100 percent retention.
It now employs 18 people, and everything for sale in the store and on their website supports organizations helping women. To learn more, visit http://www.rethreaded.com.