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Recovering Sex Trade Victims Get Job Skills At Food Cart Business

Three years ago, a special court was developed to help women who had been charged with prostitution turn their lives around instead of spending time in jail. This summer, some of these women are preparing to graduate from the program. WOSU talked with a local non-profit group helps these women develop job skills they’ll be able to use in their new lives. “So right now I’m just taking the greens out of the water and straining them. And getting the water off of them and the dirt," Jennifer Evans explained as she cleaned turnip leaves so she could make a pesto sauce. Evans is about to graduate from CATCH Court. It’s a special Franklin County Municipal Court for women who’ve been arrested for prostitution. Most of the women, like Evans, would be in jail. But the court places them on probation and sends them to counseling. Some get drug and alcohol rehab if they need it. As part of Evans’ probation, she works with the advocacy group Doma International. Doma provides the women transportation to treatment sessions and offers a house where they can hang out. In January, Doma began an entrepreneurial opportunity for the women. It’s called Freedom a la Cart. The program has a food truck and small catering business. It gives the women a chance to develop life and job skills. “It’s amazing how the transition of the food looks," Evans said. "And after you have cut it and chopped it up. It just looks like beautiful.â€? For seven years, Evans’ life revolved around crime, addiction and Columbus’ sex trade. She said working with Freedom a la Cart has given her confidence a much-needed boost. “To be able to work here and work around people, be able to learn, to be taught. Because those are all things people take for granted that you don’t know if you’re not in that environment on an everyday basis. Just dealing with people...You know, you get to be taught how to show up on time and work and take directions.â€? Finding one’s way around a commercial kitchen is not easy. But the women have not been left to figure out the kitchen by themselves. Doma was able to get funds to hire a professional chef for a year: Lara Yazvac. On this day, Yazvac cuts up top round beef at Double Happiness pub in the Brewery District. “We do like a slow braise on it. And it becomes the filing for our gaucho sandwich which is our most popular item," Yazvac described. The pub lets Doma use its kitchen and sell the food during its happy hour. Yazvac said she heard about what Doma was doing through a friend. And after hearing some of the women’s stories she said, "Sign me up. Where do I start?â€? “I have some women who came in who were notorious for making nothing but microwave meals. And then a couple of weeks ago they came out of the kitchen and their knife skills were amazing," Yazvac said of the joy she gets from teaching the women. "[The women] said, ‘I’ll chop parsley!’ And it was like (chop, chop, chop, chop). And it was amazing! And I just feel like I’m doing something really great with my life.â€? Doma International founder Julie Clark said often fast food is the first work the women get as they complete probation. But some have a tough time adjusting. “So they’re kind of starting from scratch with learning everything from computer to customer service to even things like counting back change to even opening a bank account. So we thought, if we can help them with that and launch a social enterprise if might be something that can train them and we can take that long journey with them as they’re learning life and job skills so they can become independent," she said. Clark said the program’s goal of helping women is not a marketing strategy. They want customers to like the food, and the women’s product to stand on its own. “We didn’t want a compassion buy. We didn’t want them to have to sell something they didn’t love themselves.â€? Back in the kitchen Jennifer Evans, carefully pours fresh red pepper sauce into large plastic bottles. “I plan on starting in the fall at Columbus State. I’ve scored in to start to take those classes for mental health disabilities and addiction studies. So that’s where I’m heading.â€? But Evans plans to continue to work part-time with Freedom a la Cart. As for Doma, the organization hopes the food truck and catering develops into a permanent, full-fledged restaurant.