With a deep passion for serving others, Rachel Haaga knew she wanted to be a part of the nonprofit world from an early age. After graduating from the University of Memphis, she embarked on a journey to the other side of the world and came back to the Bluff City with a mission: to eradicate human trafficking. Her time in Cambodia working with Youth With A Mission gave Rachel the knowledge and determination to confront the evil that exists right here in Tennessee. In 2013, she co-founded Restore Corps to raise awareness, fight for systemic changes and empower survivors. Under Rachel’s leadership as Executive Director, Restore Corps is now designated as the official Single Point of Contact Agency for West Tennessee, runs two safe houses in Memphis, and has written or lobbied for the legislative changes that make Tennessee number one in the nation for anti-trafficking laws. Meet this determined and compassionate FACE of Memphis, Rachel Haaga!
Tell us about your first glimpse of human trafficking.
I was asked by the owners of Trilogy Tattoos and Piercings to work for them, and I did that through college. This opportunity gave me a different lens through which to look at my city. Like any business, the clientele varied from day to day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Trilogy was where I got my first glimpse into trafficking. Men would bring women in and ask for them to be tattooed with his name in a visible place, like their neck. The women would never speak and were clearly not willing participants. We would refuse, for legal reasons but also on principle. I had a fire in me that said, “No. We are not branding this woman for you.”
Restore Corps’ mission is to eradicate human trafficking by empowering survivors, equipping communities and seeking justice through systemic change. Can you expand on that a little bit?
We chose the word “empower” very intentionally rather than “rescue” or “save.” To claim the role of rescuer or savior makes us the hero — when the real hero is the survivor — and it doesn’t honor a survivor’s own agency, resiliency and willingness to hope.
When we equip communities, we offer both awareness and training. Too often, people think it just doesn’t happen here. We offer simple, basic “human trafficking 101” and more strategic professional-level training — for example, with airport police or the Department of Education. If we can educate our community, we minimize the places for trafficking to hide.
Systemic change is so important and takes different forms. We have a court diversion class called Lives Worth Saving, where we work with law enforcement and the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office to offer diversion for people arrested for prostitution. The class educates and assists victims rather than punishing them. We also work alongside lawmakers to create better provisions for victims and stronger penalties for traffickers and the buyers who drive demand.
What are the biggest challenges facing Restore Corps?
When we first got started, we had an early buy-in from law enforcement. They knew the problem of human trafficking was real and happening in our community. The broader community, including churches, were harder to gain traction — there was a disconnect, as people just could not believe trafficking happened here. Over the years, community buy-in has grown, but raising awareness is still one of our biggest challenges.
Along with everyone else in the world, we’ve faced challenges due to COVID-19. We’ve had to find creative ways to engage and connect with our survivors who live outside our residential care safe houses. We often have as many as 35-40 survivors living with family or in foster care. Isolation is very hard for trauma survivors. To safely engage and encourage them, the team launched what we call “honk and hollers” — driving to the clients to visit, dropping off treats, supplies, PPE, workbooks for therapy and more. We also have virtual group care and therapy sessions, and as restrictions permit, we are bringing small groups into our survivor care center.
What fulfills you most about your job?
I would say two things: When survivors express their belief that our team has their back — that they know they’re no longer alone, and when our team feels that their long hours, dedication and resilience are making a difference in the lives of survivors.
What do you wish more people knew about human trafficking?
You don’t have to run an organization or be a social worker to fight trafficking. Be a mentor to a vulnerable teen. Streets Ministries and Memphis Athletic Ministries are two great places to volunteer. Share information with your Sunday School or Bible study group — we will always be glad to come in to do a talk. If you are a lawyer, offer services pro bono to help a survivor get on her feet. If you own a business, consider offering a survivor a job. There are so many lanes of opportunity.
Can you share a survivor success story with us?
We worked with a survivor not that long ago. Her trafficker forced her to drive everywhere, and she had racked up what seemed to be insurmountable fines. All her utilities were in her trafficker’s name, so he could have her power cut off at any time. She had nothing — no car, no job, and she had lost custody of her daughter — when she had the courage to leave her trafficker.
It was a collaborative effort to get her on her feet. Memphis Area Legal Services helped with the fines to clear her license and get custody of her child. A former Trilogy colleague donated a car to us, specifically for [her] to use to get a job. Community volunteers helped her get that job. One year later, she has overcome her addiction, lives with her daughter and is working.
Communicating success stories like this one is twofold. We want to share the benchmarks the world sees as success — getting a GED, getting a job. But more importantly, we want to honor the reality of overcoming evil and honor a survivor’s willingness to hope for a new day.
What’s your best piece of advice?
When I was with Youth With A Mission, a quote from one of my teachers was, “Revelation requires response.” All of us on the team had seen the revelation of human trafficking, and that required a response. Those words changed my life.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Coffee, dinner table conversations, and outdoor adventure.
Thank you, Rachel! For more information about Restore Corps, visit restorecorps.org. For a brief overview of Restore Corps’ mission and to hear another amazing story of success, watch this brief video courtesy of Christ Church Memphis.
Images courtesy of Emily Swan.
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