Rachel Haaga, Huey’s Poplar Server, has been with us for 10 years! Rachel is the founder and Executive Director at Restore Corps, a local organization working to end human trafficking in our city and state. In this interview, Rachel tells us about Restore Corps, as well as what Huey’s has meant to her over the years.

Tell us about Restore Corps:

I founded Restore Corps in 2013 after working at Operation Broken Silence, an organization building a global movement to empower the Sudanese people through innovative programs. I founded the company with other people who were volunteers at the organization, who were working additional jobs, yet joined together to make this happen. Other passionate humans who were all just in it together.

I was once a missionary, and a quote from one of my teachers says “Revelation Requires Response.” Each one of us on the team had encountered Human Trafficking in some kind of way, and we wanted to figure out how to respond to it locally.

Restore Corps is a strategic three-prong approach, broken down into empower survivors, equip communities, and change systems.

Empowering Survivors:

Empowering survivors means we provide wrap-around, trauma informed, holistic case management to human trafficking survivors here in our community. We have two safe houses that can house up to 10 survivors, but we have robust community-based case management and support as well, providing really low barriers to receiving our services.

Historically, organizations that respond to these issues have that high barrier of, “Move into our house when you’re ready for change.” Meaning, when the victim is free, so to speak. But sometimes human trafficking just doesn’t work like that, and there’s not always a one-time where someone’s rescued from the situation.

A lot of times it’s someone whose being coerced into being exploited every day. For example, I’ve had other nonprofit leaders call and say a kid in the community being served by that organization is going to school every day and a trafficker is sitting at their house when they come home, saying, “Hey, I have some dates for you. You have to go do this and get me this money, or I’ll hurt your family.” For all intensive purposes, it looks like the kid is operating normally from a large community perspective or to someone whose not paying attention. Because they’re still going to school every day, they’re still participating in their every day life.

Human Trafficking most often is not that kidnapping myth. I don’t think we’ve had any cases over ten years where someone was stolen from a mall, or taken in that manner.  A lot of times it’s just someone a victim knows. Either they’ve gotten to know them via social media or in the community. We’ve had parents, friends of parents and boyfriends or parents be the facilitator and trafficker.

Stranger danger is actually one of the biggest harms to communicating this problem correctly, because often times it’s not a stranger. For whatever reason, the victim feels an affection and relationship with the trafficker more times than not.

That being said, we empower survivors in what we call our safe house model, our blossom house and/or in community-based care. So we maintain a consistent case load of about 30-40 survivors at any given time. This year, we’ve already intervened with or served over 100 survivors. 70 new referrals for the year, and we brought 33 cases from previous years into this year who are still engaged in case care.

Equipping Communities:

We offer volunteer training for community members wondering how they, too, can respond to human trafficking. It could be simple, human trafficking 101 training, or it could be exceptionally robust, very strategic professional level training.

We have trained airport police on what they are going to see in the airport and how they can intervene. We are part of a group who was contracted last year with the department of education to create a webinar for Tennessee teachers. That webinar is hosted on the End slavery Tennessee website and more than 25,000 teachers have looked at it over the last year to meet their human trafficking requirement.

We believe in equipping communities, because the best kind of rescue is no need for rescue at all. If we can constantly educate more of our community, I think we can strategically eliminate the places in our community where victims can hide in plain sight.

Changing Systems:

That can be our prostitution diversion class where we work with MPD and our Shelby County DA to offer diversion for people arrested for prostitution. Because often times if someone is arrested for prostitution, they’re likely not going to self-identify their trafficking. When they’re in front of a judge, potentially the trafficker could be the one that drove them to court. And the court room just isn’t a trauma informed, safe place for them to do that. We’ve create this court diversion class where the only people allowed in the room are our providers, our staff, the other organizations we work with or the actual court mandated participants. This creates a different way the court system looks at this victimization and creates a safer place for the victim to self-identify their trafficking.

And another thing we do is work on our Tennessee advocacy or Tennessee legislation. Tennessee, through our advocacy and partnership with other organizations like us, is number one in the nation for what’s considered counter-trafficking law. There’s a national organization out of Washington DC that analyzes and researches legislation that can affect how states deal with this issue, meaning stiffer penalties for buyers and traffickers, provisions for victims, etc. and Tennessee is actually number one in that state ranking for the third year in a row and fourth year in five.

For example, part of that legislation was passing that law that requires Tennessee teachers for a training that we then developed with the department of education. So a lot of the work really marries into one another.

There’s an old theologian who in the 1900’s, Deidrick Bonhoeffer, said, “It is not enough to bandage the wounds of the victims trampled under the wheels of injustice, but to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” We really modeled our mission statement after that idea. We do want to bandage the wounds and be in the lives of the victims, but we also want to drive a spoke into the wheel by training our community as well as working with criminal justice systems and legislation to change the narrative.

You clearly have made a huge impact in the community and had a lot on your plate during this time. Why have you chosen to stay at Huey’s all these years?

2010 to 2018, I wasn’t paying myself to do this work. So Huey’s was paying the bills while I was building Restore Corps. For years, it wasn’t really a part time job. In 2017, I started shimmying down, but still needing to keep specific shifts.

It’s a lot of different things. Huey’s is community. Huey’s is family. Whether it’s the coworkers beside you, or even just the way that the sisters (*Huey’s owners) themselves constantly choose to leverage who they are and the capacity of their business to better Memphis. That has always and will always be an asset to me personally, as well as to Restore Corps. So I’ve just enjoyed continuing to be a part of the family. At some point with Huey’s, it just kind of becomes a part of your identity and who you are as a person to be in the Huey’s family.

I’ve even told my Restore Corps board and my husband that I hang onto Huey’s because in a weird way it’s self-care for me. To be able to go in and be alongside colleagues that the pressure of the moment is not intervening for a victim or changing someone’s life, but to just help someone enjoy their Monday or Friday night with a burger and a beer. So for me, it helps me check into joy a little bit more. Or at least be a facilitator of joy as opposed to intervener in crisis.

It really is an opportunity for a different kind of hospitality in who I am as a person, to be able to rest in a different way of interacting with our city. Even when everything’s hitting the fan and there’s a wait at the door, there’s still an adrenalin and joy in that moment of providing a place for people to find rest and a meal and community with one another, provide that place of hospitality for others to have the moment that they need from whatever is going on in their lives to be able to come in.

It really does help me check out. Even if I’m home, no matter what, my brain just spins on whatever is needed for Restore Corps, the story of the last victim or what victim might be about to face their trafficker in court. So it helps me literally have that pause and be focused on something else.

What is your best memory from Huey’s?

I just want to give a shoutout to so many of my coworkers and managers that will never be in the byline of what Restore Corps is, but from the top down, from the sisters to managers and coworkers, so many of them have played a part in Restore Corps. I’ll never forget driving to work one day and getting an interview request from a news station, and I’m on my way to clock in for a lunch shift. I get there and tell my coworkers, “Here’s the deal, I’m really sorry, I didn’t know what else to do – they’re going to be here to talk to me around lunch. I’m in it with you setting up the restaurant, but can somebody cover my section at 11 when they get here?” They’re unbelievable to help make that happen. One coworker, very stoically and honestly said, “I cannot do what you do, but I can help you do what you do.”

I think about how many managers over the years I’ve looked at and said, “The FBI is on the phone, or the attorney general’s office is on my phone – what can I do?” And they tell me to go away, get on my phone, do what I need to do while they cover my section. So Restore Corps has been a complete joint effort from way more people than I can count via Huey’s.

I’m tearing up thinking about that, and it may be silly to say that Restore Corps wouldn’t be Restore Corps without Huey’s, but they are exceptionally connected. Because there was no other way I would have been able to go from 2010 to 2018 without being paid by Restore Corps. And now just in the past couple of years, it’s been able to turn into a career. But everyone at Huey’s has made that possible. Everyone.

We have Huey’s staff on our volunteer roster who have put together furniture at our safe houses or painted walls or dug gardens or bartended events for us and it’s just been a true asset.

Learn more about Restore Corps here: https://www.restorecorps.org/