Shop to Rescue, Shop to Save

Women at Risk Internationalkathy_grayThe holidays are a time of shopping for family and friends, but have you ever thought of shopping for a cause?

The War Chest Boutique, located in the Women At Risk, International headquarters at 2790 44th Street in Wyoming, offers an opportunity to do just that. The elegant and spacious storefront displays items produced or supported by women who have escaped sexual slavery or other at-risk situations such as domestic violence, substance abuse, and exploitation. The products include spa items, scarves, cards, bags, and beautiful jewelry made from items unique to their country of origin such as pearls, gems, paper, and nuts.

From its humble beginnings in the kitchen of founder and president, Rebecca McDonald, Women at Risk, International, or WAR Int’L, now has safe houses in 40 countries. These safe houses and related programs work to rescue women and children from the ravages of human trafficking and bring them to a place where they can enjoy job training, education, counseling, therapy, and mentoring. Stephanie Cozzolino, Retail District Manager, shared that recently the organization achieved a grant allowing WAR Int’L to increase the size of their program. Cozzolino asserts their excitement that lives can be restored and dignity reclaimed.

Women at Risk InternationalYou may be thinking that WAR Int’L is a noble cause to help these women and children in foreign lands, but that human trafficking doesn’t have an effect on your life. Unfortunately, sexual exploitation not only exists overseas but indeed is thriving underground in small towns across America; Yes, even towns like Wyoming, Kentwood, and Grandville.

An estimated 2,400 children are living in slavery, exploited, or sold in West Michigan, according to the U. S. Department of State.

According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Michigan ranks 13th in the country for the number of sex trafficking victims.

You may remember the recent news headlines when WCSG radio personality, John Balyo, was arrested and convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct for arranging sexual encounters with minors. Internet child pornography is an ever-growing industry in our country. According to the FBI, “The new slavery…human trafficking, is the fastest growing segment of organized crime.”

“There is a misconception that all traffickers are men,” states Cozzolino. “It is surprising that women play a growing role in the trafficking and prostitution business.”

Large public events such as the Superbowl have become the largest incidents for human trafficking in the United States. Likewise, Cozzolino statesWomen at Risk International local Grand Rapids events such as Art Prize have drawn similar crime. Many from out-of-town use internet sources like Backpage to obtain children and women for illicit purposes. War Int’L closely monitors these events, participating with groups like the S.O.A.P. project to offer rescue and assistance to those in need.

The S.O.A.P. project works to place bars of soap in hotel bathrooms (many times the only time the victim is away from her captor) with the number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center imprinted on the wrapper. Aside from large events, intervention and assistance is also offered at bars, strip clubs, and red light districts within the city.

Traffickers are very adept at luring vulnerable teens with flattery, gifts, or the promise of love or riches before drugging them and selling their bodies to the highest bidders. Those victims who are able to escape are left with nothing but scars, both emotional and physical. That is where WAR Int’L comes in. Rescued and at-risk women can come to the WAR Int’L headquarters for protection and assistance. Safe houses offer “safe places to turn crisis into hope, where women can be rescued, restored, and empowered to walk with dignity.”

Women at Risk InternationalHow can you help? Shop! That’s right, it’s as easy as visiting the War Chest Boutique in Wyoming (or its counterparts in Rockford, MI and Napierville, IL) and picking out an item, made with love by a woman who has overcome darkness and is on the path to independence. One hundred percent of the money from the product made by these women returns to them and their programs. Staff at WAR Int’L are compensated through donations.

Looking forward to the spring, Cozzolino explained that the current Winter Wonderland theme in the anteroom will be transformed into a café, staffed with baristas to make and serve fresh coffee and treats. Please take the time to stop in for a break and peruse the gorgeous products being sold in the name of love.

While donations are always appreciated, you can also host a War Chest party at your home, church, office, or at the War Chest Boutique. Please go to for more information.

Kathy is a long-time employee with Spectrum Health. She has been married for 28 years to her wonderful husband, Duke. Together they have 2 children, Emily and Daniel. In her free time she enjoys volunteering with the Casting Bread Mobile Food Pantry at Kentwood Christian Church, making sandwiches at Kids Food Basket, and leading Ladies Bible Study on Thursday nights. Writing has been her passion since elementary school and she loves to write about how others enjoy what they are passionate about!