Grand Rapids entrepreneurs link arms with nonprofits to fight sex trafficking

When Heidi VanderWal and Danielle DeSmit learned that thousands of people — women, children and men — are victims of human trafficking in West Michigan every year, they knew they needed to do something to combat an epidemic that ensnares millions of individuals across the globe, including in Grand Rapids’ own neighborhoods.
When Heidi VanderWal and Danielle DeSmit learned that thousands of people — women, children and men — are victims of human trafficking in West Michigan every year, they knew they needed to do something to combat an epidemic that ensnares millions of individuals across the globe, including in Grand Rapids’ own neighborhoods.

The two Grand Rapidians, who have long been friends and dreamed of going into business together for years, decided to launch their own company, Crowned Free, which donates a large chunk of its profits to organizations working with victims of sex trafficking. Additionally, the company helps to employ victims who are rebuilding their lives after being subjected to unimaginable horrors.

“We weren’t going to start something like this without attaching it to a cause, and human trafficking was both laid on our hearts at different times in the last three years,” DeSmit says. “That’s how this whole vision transpired.”
Enlisting the help of local and international nonprofits, as well as Kendall College of Art and Design students, VanderWal and DeSmit founded the company one year ago. For the past 12 months, the company has sold T-shirts, and the mission has been so well received that VanderWal and DeSmit recently unrolled a new line of clothing, which the two women have designed, along with the help of the KCAD students, including new shirts, leggings, dresses, a hat, purses, and more.

The line’s launch was celebrated with a Jan. 28 fashion show at Cheney Place on Monroe Avenue, and a portion of the event’s proceeds went to Grand Rapids-based The Manasseh Project, an outreach ministry of Wedgwood Christian Services that is dedicated to ending sex trafficking in West Michigan.

The show was packed — a sign that Grand Rapidians and other West Michiganders are dedicated to fighting exploitation, Crowned Free’s co-founders say. Additionally, the evening helped to educate those not familiar with the prevalence of trafficking in the area — something that the two women say has for too long flown under society’s radar.

VanderWal, who was involved in fashion jewelry sales prior to building her own company, explains that she first found out about the impact of human trafficking in West Michigan at a local women’s event, and was shocked by the news.

“I had no clue it was going on right here in town — it’s right here, so close to home,” VanderWal says. “When we found out trafficking happens here locally, you just have to do something.”

“I was at the same event that Heidi was at,” DeSmit adds. “You always think of an epidemic like that as happening far away. But it happens here. It happens in the nice neighborhoods. It’s everywhere.”

Human trafficking in West Michigan

While it’s difficult to gauge just how many people are forced into this modern day slavery, Women at Risk International, a Wyoming, Michigan-based nonprofit that’s working to eliminate human trafficking, reports there are currently at least 2,400 minors who are trafficking victims in West Michigan — and that number doesn't take into account the women and men forced into slavery. People of all ages are subjected to these horrors, though the U.S. Department of Justice states that the average age of a victim of sex trafficking in the country is 13, with 12 being the average for a boy and 14 for a girl.

“We have seen victims robbed of their childhood, their dignity, their health, their families, and even their lives,” state Attorney General Bill Schuette wrote in a 2013 report on human trafficking in Michigan. “We have seen the callousness of those who prey on the vulnerable to force them into providing commercial sex or exploited labor. We have brought to light the fact that this is not just a problem for the world; it is a problem for Michigan.”

Trafficking touches all corners of Michigan, and the entire state has the fifth highest number of sex trafficking victims who are 18 years old or younger in the entire country, according to the nonprofit Shared Hope International. The SW Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force reports that the three most common forms of sex trafficking reported to the Shared Hope International hotline were: pimp-controlled prostitution, commercial front brothels and escort services.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reports that, between 2007 and 2015, the organization has received 2,395 calls about human trafficking in Michigan, which has resulted in 556 total cases of trafficking (just through this specific group). The number of calls, and cases, continues to increase, which officials note is a positive outcome, as it means more people are aware of resources available to them (many of the calls made to the center were by victims themselves).

According to the resource center, online advertising and commercial front brothels are the top two venues/industries for sex trafficking, followed by hotels and motels, residential brothels, and, lastly, street-based operations.

In Kent County specifically, trafficking is a deep-rooted problem that is growing, according to the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force, which first convened in March 2015.

“Like others, our community possesses characteristics that can be easily exploited by traffickers in what is, at its core, a highly lucrative commercial enterprise,” the task force writes, citing West Michigan’s agribusiness sector as a draw for labor traffickers and truck stops and rest areas dotting well-traveled highways as “attractive places for sex traffickers to sell their victims.”

“Our local hospitality industry has grown as our region becomes an increasingly popular location for large-scale events and national conventions,” the task force writes. “Hotels — filled with guests frequently coming and going and often unfamiliar to hotel staff — provide convenient, temporary cover for traffickers looking to service sex workers.”

Jordan Carson MC's the fashion show.Additionally, the task force notes that “the socio-economic conditions that can make people vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking in the first place are widespread in our community.”

“The economic growth Kent County has experienced in recent years remains stubbornly out of reach for thousands,” the group writes. “One in six people in our community lives in poverty. With few economic options, adults and children alike are often coerced into dangerous situations to simply put food on the table and a roof over their heads.”

Caring for victims in Grand Rapids

Crowned Free donates 35 percent of their profits to organizations (a list of which you can see here) that work with trafficking victims, both in Grand Rapids and around the globe, including The Manasseh Project, AIM Employment Center, Crisis Aid International, World Orphans, We Are Cherished, and others.

“Our vision for Crowned Free is that list is going to multiply,” DeSmit says. “It’s going to be a long list.”

In addition to financial donations, the company employs women to sew for their company through The Manasseh Project and Agape International. For example, The Manasseh Project is working with trafficking victims who are making pillows for Crowned Free.

“It’s a chance to give them a work experience; they’ve never had employment skills — they haven’t been taught how to keep a job and be at a job,” says Jackie Brewster, who supervises The Manasseh Project’s employment training program. “It teaches them work skills and overall life skills, so when they’re ready to go into the community, they have tools to work with.”

NiKeidra DeBarge, the project coordinator at Manasseh, says the work is crucial in showing them that, while they’ve been through something traumatic, they “still can gain skills; they can become confident.”

Brewster emphasizes this point, saying that individuals’ self worth grows immensely during the work program.

“When they’ve been exploited, they feel like they don’t deserve anything; they’re worthless,” she says. “For them to see they’re making something that’s wanted by somebody else is so important. Once they start feeling like that, everything else in their life improves — overall behavior starts to improve; they do better in school.”

In addition to offering the work training, The Manasseh Project provides trauma counseling, education, independent living skills, and more. The majority of the individuals who stay at the center are from West Michigan, including from Kent County and Muskegon. As VanderWal and DeSmit mentioned, it’s difficult for residents to believe that trafficking is a problem in their own backyard, and DeBarge says that Manasseh Project representatives often go into the community to provide education on the topic.

“When people think of prostitution, they think of Division Street, of someone walking down the street in high heels, but that’s not what it looks like, especially with the rise of the internet,” DeBarge says.

How Grand Rapidians (and anyone) can help

As an everyday citizen, there’s much you can do to help fight human trafficking, from lending a hand financially to just keeping an eye out for signs that someone may be a victim.
  • The Manasseh Project is  looking for local businesses to work with them to employ some of the individuals the project helps. “We’re looking for agencies willing to give them a chance to use their skills, whether it’s a factory or a restaurant or other small business owners,” DeBarge says. To learn more, you can call NiKeidra DeBarge at 616-831-5669 or email her at [email protected].
  • There are numerous signs that may show someone is being forced to have sex or work against their will, a list of which you can see here, here (go to page 28), and here.
  • If you are a victim, or you think you know someone who is, call the Kent County Human Trafficking hotline, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 616-726-7777.
  • You can also call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
  • There are numerous groups in West Michigan that support human trafficking victims, many of which accept donations and/or volunteers. You can see a list here.
  • Increase awareness by talking to your friends neighbors about trafficking, donate items that trafficking victims and their children need, and more. See the numerous ways to help at the Wyoming, Michigan-based Women at Risk International.
Whatever you do, the important thing is to act, VanderWal and DeSmit say.

"People ask all the time how they can help besides buying our clothes," DeSmit says, "You can support locally and where you feel led. Financial help is huge... When people link arms, there is something really special that happens."

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