Rest Stop Ministries partnered withFried Green Tomatoes to form their social enterprise Good Hope Farms in Lebanon, Tennessee, giving trafficked women a chance to heal financially while healing mentally.
"Six years ago, in 2015, we opened our doors," said Rondy Smith, Rest Stop Ministries founder and CEO. "Restore survivors, stop oppression. The particular oppression that we want to stop is the criminal oppression of sex trafficking. The survivors that we want to restore are adult female survivors of sex trafficking, and that's who we are what we do, we run a long-term, residential restoration program for these survivors."
Smith said 40 million people are trafficked around the world for both labor and sex. She said in Tennessee, nearly 95 minors and countless adults are trafficked every month.
The pandemic made those numbers worse.
"The pandemic has increased the exploitation because of the isolation that it created. And secretiveness and hiddenness could happen. And that's where this crime operates a lot," explained Smith. "But it also impacted the ability for survivors to reach out for help. It wasn't as easy. We never closed our doors, but it still was not easy for them to seek services. Now that we're starting to kind of come out of the pandemic. Our referrals are going up, up, up and we're almost a full house."
Amid higher referrals, the nonprofit became a social enterprise in 2021 — a goal from the start.
"We've always wanted to do social enterprise. It's been on our strategic plan from day one. But we were waiting for the right opportunity because the housing and healing program has to be your first priority. But then the economic empowerment of our survivors is so critical," Smith explained.
Smith was approached by Fried Green Tomatoes (FGT) Founder and Owner Holly Cooper with an idea: offering jobs to women at Rest Stop ministries to help them work towards savings while providing FGT with reliable employees.
Cooper felt an extra calling to help the survivors because of her own family's story.
"Seven years. We [my family] dealt with the addiction, and it's very hard," recounted Cooper with tears in her eyes. "And when I was working my business during the time, I needed something to, you know, to stay focused on. It was very hard. You know, constant worry in your life is just very, very challenging. I never gave up on her [my daughter] so we're very grateful."
Cooper's daughter Kala Davis, who is now her partner at FGT, battled substance abuse for about 10 years.
"I had my family beside me; so many people don't. Work was a big hindrance for me because... you need a safe environment and, and there's not a lot of jobs out there," explained Davis. "You know, most of the women that were in the program with me were felons, they had records, they didn't have driver's license. And I don't think people understand the gravity, how hard it is to get a job. When you've been in jail. You have no social security card, you have no ID and you have no driver's license. And so it's like, 'Where do you start?'"
With a passion for helping the Rest Stop Ministries women find a fresh start, together with Smith they found jobs at FGT the women could that would also help Cooper and Davis' business.
"I get emotional sharing this because I have seen it with my own eyes. I have watched their self-esteem already raised to a new level," explained Smith. "And that's what they have said they have said the ability to start working right away gives us a sense of accomplishment. We know we need the healing time but we also are ready to start saving because we've got to become economically independent. I mean, that is the number one thing that has to happen for them to stop the cycle of victimization."
As the women at Rest Stop Ministries began helping FGT package goods through their social enterprise, Good Hope Farms, some local stores began carrying the FGT products specifically packaged by the women.
Andrea and Todd Stephens, who own the Public Square Marketplace in downtown Lebanon, started carrying the products with 100% of the profits going back to Rest Stop Ministries.
"When people come in here, we love to share we actually have some fliers and pamphlets about Rest Stop Ministries on hand. We'd love to share that with people," explained Andrea.
The couple has also employed one of the women to help with inventory and other tasks around the store — something they encourage other business owners to do.
"We saw an amazing amount of growth. I mean, just from the way she carried herself to the beginning to when she finally left just the physical, the way she carried herself. The way her eyes would sparkle when she would come in the way she would, you know, greet people and say hello," said Andrea. "It was like she just blossomed while she was with us. And so for nothing else, I mean, that's worth something you know, that's worth a lot."
"Human trafficking has to end. We can't be a culture that aids and abets the buying and selling of a body for someone else's profit. That has to stop," said Smith. "There are so many survivors, there aren't enough beds in the country to serve them. We need people to get behind small nonprofits like ours who are providing the housing, the healing, the economic empowerment opportunities, the rehabilitation and the hope these precious souls."
If you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) runs the State Hotline: 855 558-6484.