By Sharon Broussard
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In her dedicated mission to help victims of human trafficking, Renee Jones shares a few wise words, “You can help more people with love than judgment.”
Renee Jones sat near the corner of 73rd and Lorain Ave. behind a folding table with a dwindling supply of her famous red bags stuffed with toiletries and her business cards for the Renee Jones Empowerment Center.
It was a Project Red Cord night. Jones holds them in Cleveland and East Cleveland several times a month except in winter. Jones, president and CEO of the anti-human-trafficking center, was surrounded by volunteers, just as she planned.
Drivers slowed to watch Case Western Reserve medical students and physician assistants doing blood-pressure checks at a nearby table. UPS volunteers gave away big shopping bags. Clothes and shoes covered other tables.
Jones had a quiet, kind word and a soft smile for everyone: The man in charge of a whirling flock of boys, the teenagers holding hands and the skinny guy who said he needed a coat. “Down there,” she said, pointing to a table.
She had a special eye out for the women who are harder to see — the nearly invisible victims of human trafficking, often dressed in jeans and hoodies.
She hoped one of those women would pick up a red bag, see her card among the snacks and toiletries, and decide to change her life through the empowerment center. “You can help more people with love than judgment,” she said.
For 17 years, long before human trafficking in Ohio became a topic on billboards, Jones fought human trafficking on two fronts: Educating communities about the problem and helping women get out of the forced sex trade. She did it one red bag, one conversation and one nudge at a time. Along the way she helped hundreds of women start new lives.
Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Marilyn Cassidy, who runs the court’s human trafficking docket, praises the center and encourages defendants to go there. “A lot of these women never had anyone who gave anything about them,” said Cassidy, who called the center a safe place.
Cuyahoga County Judge Joan Synenberg, leader of the recovery court, praises the way Jones treats her clients. “She respects them,” said Synenberg. “They are treated respectfully there. They are valued. This is building them up instead of tearing down.”
Jones first planned to work with the homeless 17 years ago in the Gordon Square Arts District. Then she watched young women slip in and out of cars, while pimps watched from the shadows. She quickly realized prostitution was a very big problem.
Like her mother, she was always eager to help people, she said. “Mom always told us that God is love and you are the hands and feet of God,” she said. “This is my passion, helping people who are down and out… I look forward to it. I can’t tell you one time I thought I would quit.”
That’s not to say it’s always been easy. For years, she worked full-time at another non-profit job and spent evenings at a ramshackle building so small that the only restroom was in her office. She rented it herself to offer support programs, and paid the $300 monthly rent by passing the hat. But the volunteers who offered free classes and support were “phenomenal,” she said.
Jones started running the center full-time four years ago after receiving a $139,588 annual grant from the Ohio Attorney General’s office. This year, she moved the center to a 4,000-square-foot building on Pearl Ave. It provides free services from support groups to horse-riding therapy, although she closed the center’s legal clinic to do more outreach.
No one has firm numbers on how many people are trapped in human trafficking because often it is invisible, said Karen Walsh, president and CEO of the Collaborative to End Human Trafficking, based in Cleveland.
Traffickers blend into a community; so do their victims, who are lured into the commercial sex trade because they are hooked on drugs, threatened or manipulated through emotional bonds to their traffickers. There are even parents who traffic their kids, Walsh said. “It’s crazy, the scenarios. And it can happen anywhere.”
Escape from that life often requires drug rehabilitation and mental health counseling. Jones helps them find those services, then provides a final push through the services of the empowerment center. “This is no work for the person who doesn’t have patience,” said Jones. “It takes a long, long time.
First of all, they have to build trust because everyone has violated that.”
Annette Mango knows how hard it is to break free. She ended up on Judge Cassidy’s human trafficking docket in 2014 after “50 million misdemeanor” convictions for crack cocaine possession and prostitution.
She was referred to Jones’ center, she said recently, and she needed it. She feared that she would go back to her old life because she felt like “a nobody,” after nearly two decades of abuse.
When she arrived at the center, she was stunned when Jones came out of her office and shook her hand. “She asked about me,” she said. And she fell in love with the survivors’ support group, which talked about positive things and “pumped her up.”
“I felt something I never felt before,” said Mango, her voice breaking. “I didn’t feel like a statistic.”
Now she has a job, a car and a place to go when she needs help.
Occasionally she tells others her story, on behalf of the center.
Jones wants to do more. She envisions a small medical clinic inside her new building and she wants to put human trafficking victims in Cleveland in touch with other human trafficking victims worldwide so they can exchange ideas about how to end it.
“I feel like this is my God-given destiny. I tell people that everybody has a gift that they can use and mine is just helping people that are broken get back together,” Jones said. “And that is done with a lot of love.”
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Name: Renee Jones
Organization: Renee Jones Empowerment Center
Cleveland Credentials: Jones has been helping women in poverty and human trafficking survivors in Cleveland for 17 years, and started operating the Empowerment Center from a small office on Pearl Ave.
Champion Credentials: Jones has dedicated her life to respecting, supporting and uplifting women who have ended up in the sex trade through drug abuse, manipulation or abuse.
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