Good Spirits: Restoring Dignity, Raising Awareness - Repurposed Store
Good Spirits are quarterly interviews with business leaders. During Good Spirits, we bring you a distilled look at business owners who are working to make a better future by giving back to their community through their work or philanthropy. These leaders inspire and empower us to make a positive difference in our own backyards.
Carolyn Keller: Hi! This is Carolyn, and this is our fourth episode of Good Spirits. These are quarterly interviews with business owners and leaders working to make a positive difference in our region. I'm joined today by Elizabeth Echevarria, who runs Repurposed, a resale store located in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. Elizabeth I would love to have you give an overview of Repurposed and the mission that you serve, because there's a whole lot more to it than just a resale store.
Elizabeth Echevarria: Thank you, Carolyn, for having me today. Re-purposed as a resale shop located in Ross township at 7805 McKnight Road and it helps fund the work that we do by selling men's, women's, children's [clothing], housewares, furniture, books. There's just a short list of items that we don't sell. It is 10,000 square feet, so it's rather large and has lots of items. We like people bringing down donations and coming to shop. Both of those help support our mission, which is to help women get out of sex trafficking, and we do that in many different ways.
Photo courtesy of Believe, Create, Inspire LLC- Amy Tedrow Photography
Mission of Repurposed
Carolyn Keller: You have the Repurposed store and then the mission, which is a part of your Living in Liberty organization, right?
Elizabeth Echevarria: Yes, so Repurposed is actually under an umbrella organization called Living in Liberty, a non-profit that helps women exit out of the life of sex trafficking here in Pittsburgh. We do that in three ways: 1) we have a safe home where women can stay for a year a year and a half, 2) we do street outreach in various parts of the city where we connect with women in the streets who are being prostituted and trafficked in the streets of Pittsburgh, and we provide them support. Actually, items that are donated to the repurposed store we also take out to street outreach to be able to give to the women that we work with in the streets. The same thing with the sage home. The women that come stay in the safe home can come shop in the store and get items. Often, they just come with the clothes on their back and to be able to get items that are their style, size, color - just things that they would pick out and being able to go to the story is a nice opportunity for them. 3) Then we also do awareness of prevention. We'll talk to anybody to educate them on the issue of trafficking and prevention, getting into the schools as well. So all the money that we generate from the resale shop funds, all of those three things.
Carolyn Keller: Fantastic. When you talk about the awareness piece - Can you talk a little bit more about the general issue of human trafficking in this area and why it's so important to address [human trafficking] through the work that you do?
Elizabeth Echevarria: One of the great things about the Repurposed store is it helps generate awareness. Because as people come in and shop, they learn about the mission of the organization and just through that we're able to build awareness. It is an issue that happens here in Pittsburgh. Often people are surprised by that fact, but really trafficking happens everywhere. Anywhere there is a demand created, and unfortunately, it's often by men and sports events or traveling for business. It can take many different forms, but the most common form happens through online venues where people are looking for someone online. Some red flags that you might look for are an older man with a younger girl that seems kind of odd or out of place; someone that they won't let the younger person do a lot of the talking, maybe they're even holding on to their documents, like their identification, especially if it's someone who is from another country and they don't speak the language. Although a majority of those that are trafficked are here from the US and are not international victims.
Those are the biggest things to look for. Things to look for in someone that you might know that you're concerned is being trafficked is: if all of a sudden they have their hair and their nails being done; they're being taken out to nice dinners; they're meeting people at random, odd places that just don't make sense; and they're being a lot more secretive.
Often people think of abduction as a way that trafficking happens and that's really only 3% of cases. Most people think of the movie Taken, and that's just not really how it most often happens. It often happened through what we like to call “boyfriending” and “boyfriending” is where a young man who is significantly older than the girl that he's going after. The average age of entry is 12-13 [years old]. So this 20-something young man will start by grooming this young girl by acting like a boyfriend or a love interest, taking her out to nice dinners, getting their hair and nails done, buying expensive purses, and through that builds a relationship with her. She may be being treated better than she has ever been before, she probably comes from an economically disadvantaged situation where she doesn't have access to these kinds of things often in the foster care system. However, it doesn't necessarily have to be any particular socio-economic level, it can happen to anybody, so we don't like to create just the impression that it's only those that are in the foster care system. But they [individuals in the foster care system] tend to be more vulnerable because they have a lot more needs and are easier to manipulate. Then after he lavishes her with gifts, he’ll turn on her and say, “To support our lifestyle, I need you to do this.” And that's what's called turning her out. Once he turns her out and she does this, it's easier to get her to do it again and again. And she really sees this person as a love interest and someone that's taken care of her and feels supported. She doesn't necessarily see that there's something wrong with the situation.
Carolyn Keller: Right. It’s a great reminder that there are certain stereotypes that we have around human trafficking, sex trafficking in particular, and that some of those impressions aren’t always the way it actually is.
When did Living in Liberty get started? And what was the catalyst that got everything off the ground?
Elizabeth Echevarria: We started living in Liberty in 2012. We just had our 11th anniversary on the second of February. It really was something that was an issue that was brought to my attention when I was living in the DC Metro area. I was working in my church and I was the women's ministry leader and I was looking for a speaker. I was planning a retreat for our women and I wasn't having much success in finding a speaker. And one of the women in my church said “My mom happens to be home from the mission field, I think she would make a great speaker!” I loved this woman and I was getting desperate [to book a speaker], so I said, “I'd love to have her.” So she came and she spoke to us for two days about the work she was doing in Calcutta, India with a ministry called Project Rescue, which started by providing child care to the women that were working [in prostitution]. She shared with us that the children were often in the room, in a corner or under the bed while their mothers were working. So what the [Project Rescue] could do to help was to provide child care so that the children didn't have to be present. Through that they were able to build relationships, not only with the children, but with the mothers. In India, they have the caste system so often children end up doing what their parents do. Which meant these children would often end up prostituting themselves if they didn't have an opportunity or a way out. So through this they built relationships with them and were able to help them not repeat that cycle.
As I learned about this, I thought I should go to India to try to help. I tried to convince my husband. He didn't seem to feel the need to move to India and so I started supporting them [Project Rescue] financially and learning about as much as I could. Because back then it was still a prevalent thought that it was something that happened abroad, not so much here in the US. Then my husband had the opportunity to be a partner in a business here in Pittsburgh and we relocated. I still had this passion for [work against] trafficking. Looking around I realized there were no after-care services for women exiting the life of trafficking here. So I found a property that I thought would work well as the safe home. We proceeded to purchase that [property] which was kind of the springboard and then we opened the store. The store was always a part of the vision as a way to support the work that we do, because non-profits often struggle with funding, having the Repurposed store has been a great way to keep the sustainability for the nonprofit.
Operating a Social Enterprise
Carolyn Keller: You said that the store was part of the idea to support the mission from the beginning. That kind of social enterprise has a ripple effect is. Not only doesn't financially support [the mission], but it also incorporates with the work that you do by engaging your volunteers, the women, and other individuals that you serve. And so if you could talk about each of those pieces, the financial, the volunteers and the women and the impact that it has.
Elizabeth Echevarria: And one other way that integrates with the work that we do is that we also have a job training program in the store. We call it our job assistance program. The women that come into our sage house can then go into this program where they are trained on how to be a good employee. They can work in the store and make an income. During COVID, we expanded that to other women outside of Living in Liberty. It's been a slow process, but we're really just starting to build that program. So we're excited about that. One of the women that graduated from our home is a manager now in the store, so that's one of the good outcomes.
Financially, Repurposed provides 70% of the funding for Living in Liberty. We get funding from other places such as businesses, churches, fundraisers that we do, we do a golf outing in June and we do a salsa night in the Fall. Those events also help fund.
Repurposed also provides a great entry point for volunteers. Not everybody is comfortable with going out into the streets or working in the safe home. They don't wanna do direct service with our women - they don't either feel qualified or comfortable or just don't feel like that's their calling. So being able to work in the store is a good way to support our work. We probably have 150 volunteers across living and liberty, and I'd say 50% of them are probably in the store because it takes a lot of work to keep the store going. We do have a small staff of paid managers to make sure the store is opened and running, but it really is mainly run with volunteers.
Photos courtesy of Believe, Create, Inspire LLC - Amy Tedrow Photography
Carolyn Keller: When you think about the social enterprise side of things, you are running a business. How do you deal with the everyday business operations. For example, inventory. I'm sure you have a number of items that come in that aren't always floor-worthy. What do those types of everyday operations look like for Repurposed?
Elizabeth Echevarria: Well, I'm thankful to say I recently hired a new general manager in the store, his name is Gary Boltz. He is doing an amazing job with keeping the team on task and with the daily operations of the store. Making sure that donations are processed, all the functions within the store, addressing any maintenance that need to be done… He handles all those things so I can work on other aspects of Living in Liberty - the direct service pieces with the women that we serve. I'm thankful to have Gary in that role. It keeps me from having to be in all those details.
Carolyn Keller: Keeping everything running smoothly! That's great. And as you think about all of these different pieces coming together, you’re running a business that generates revenue with most if not all of that funding, going directly back into your mission in some way. Whether that [revenue works] through supporting the work that happens at the store or supporting the service that happens for the individuals… What tells you at the end of the day, that you're making the impact that you want to have?
Elizabeth Echevarria: It's wonderful to see the store each year it does better and better and continues to generate more revenue, that then gives us the ability to expand our programs and be able to help more women in different ways. So I think that's probably the biggest connect for me is as we are able to grow the store. Part of the vision of the store is to open another store. We're looking for space in the Cranberry area now to try to open another store because it is such a good funding source and a good way for people to connect into the mission and get an understanding of what we do.
Knowing Your Impact
Carolyn Keller: That's great! The women that are served in your programs - what are some of the successes that you see, not only through the store, but helping those women get back on their feet and re-acclimate to where they need to be?
Elizabeth Echevarria: One of the women that I talked about a little bit earlier is one of the great successes. She's now a manager and the store, doing well out of her situation. She has just come a long way from when we met her. When she came into the home she just had come out of jail, was struggling with addiction…. Now she's clean and just on a whole new trajectory - reconnected with kids which is a big part of the process - reconciliation. Most of the women we work with have children, but they don't have custody of them. Usually they're with a family member, sometimes they're in the system, but more often not there with a family member, and so reconciliation with their children is a big part of the process.
Another woman that I think of as a success. We met her in street outreach and we connected with her. We were having discussions about how we thought we weren't going to see her the next day on the streets, because we thought she was going to die because of drug use. Her situation seemed to be getting worse and worse, and then she was picked up by law enforcement and went into jail. Often people think [going to jail is] horrible, but sometimes that's the best thing that can happen for our women because it helps them get some clean time, get some clarity, and make some good decisions. And she started making some good decisions. She went into rehab for a while. We have a 90-day clean time that we were required before women can come into the safe home. So she went and got those 90 days under her belt, and then she came to the house and did really well. Now [she is just doing exceptionally well. Is life smooth and easy? No, she has challenges, just like the rest of us. Things happen in life, but she is reconciled with her kids and living clean and just in a great place compared to where we met her in the streets.
Carolyn Keller: I'm sure that that's very fulfilling for anyone who's involved with Living in Liberty/Repurpose to see those success stories. Sometimes the numbers don’t tell the full story, and when you think about human trafficking or sex trafficking there are challenges even collecting that data. It can often be under-reported. So it's not as easy as saying, we were able to get this number of women off the street, but seeing them able to thrive and flourish, I'm sure is one of the ultimate goals of the services that you're able to provide.
Elizabeth Echevarria: Yes and recidivism or going back is very high. It happens quite a few times, in fact, they say that the average number of times is 12 to 14 [times] that women will go back. We see a lot of women go back, which can be hard, as you're going through it. But the way we keep ourselves encouraged and keep on doing the work is by telling ourselves, well, maybe this is number two... Maybe this is number seven… On her way to that 12 or 14. She may not be successful this time, but if we don't get her through this number, then she won't get on to that successful exit. So that's how we stay encouraged and realize that we can't always look at the numbers of women making a successful exit. It is a process.
Carolyn Keller: Right, one step at a time. As you think about next steps, you talked about the possibility of getting another storefront that is going to help expand what you're able to do. I know you have a few other projects coming up, are you ready to talk about some of those projects or are they still behind closed doors right now?
Elizabeth Echevarria: Absolutely! We are in the process of working to open another facility. After 11 years of doing this, we've learned a lot about the work that we do. In fact, I took some time to do some environmental scanning to see what's happening out there to learn if we're doing this the most effective way.
This was a relatively new field when I started. There were not a lot of best practices out there. Sometimes you don't know what you don't know. So I went and learned what other organizations are doing to see if there are things that we can do differently. I also took feedback from our women about what they would like to see. Some of the things that we learned is that they want more of their own space. These are adult women and so coming and living in a group situation can be challenging. Then they also want to have emotional support animals with them. That's a big request.
In fact, there's a national referral organization for trafficking victims and that is now on the form asking if you will take animals in your home or facility. In the current facility we have there's just no way we could do that. But one of the most effective ways in helping our women therapeutically is the animal therapy and different means. Whether it be equine therapy or with canine dogs, helping them in their recovery process is important. So because of these things that we've learned, we are looking to open a new facility that will include tiny homes surrounding a community building where we would do all the programming and services out of. These tiny homes would then have the ability for them to have their individual space. They could have an emotional support animal with them if they wanted, so it would meet some of those needs that we were seeing with our women. And still give them a healthy community where they're supported… And taking them out of their element. Because addiction is a big part of our women's story, they need to be removed from what, in addiction, is called people, places, and things. Getting them out of those familiar spaces. Having a facility that would be more rural with these things around them would be a way that we could more effectively serve our women after what we've learned through these 11 years of serving them.
Carolyn Keller: So creating a space where not only do they have the community of shared lived experiences and shared challenges, but then also their own space to develop their independence too.
Elizabeth Echevarria: Yes, and I think... And because we're talking about adult women, its important to have your own space.
Carolyn Keller: In thinking about these women, they’ve likely been in situations where they haven't been allowed to develop that independence into adulthood and those skills that they need. You mentioned earlier about some of the job training, etc. So it's another facet of taking care of the whole person.
Elizabeth Echevarria: That's all built into the program. If they were trafficked at 12 or 13 they weren't taught all those things - the life skills that many of us were taught in those teen years, so it's helping them learn all of those things as well in the program.
Advice for Serving Needs in Your Community
Carolyn Keller: With everything that you've learned through your organization as it's grown, and everything that you've learned through running Repurposed, what piece of advice would you give for others who see a need in their community and want to address it in some way?
Elizabeth Echevarria: I would say just step out and do it, taking from Nike’s slogan there. It can look different for each person. Not everybody is gonna feel called to go out and start a nonprofit. That's a lot of work. It's a lot of paperwork and commitment, managing a Board and those kinds of things. But if that's what you really feel like you're being called to do, there are lots of people out there that can help you and mentor you. Or if you just wanna support whatever you're passionate about financially, organizations are always looking for funds and so supporting them by donating financially. Or volunteering is another way you can get engaged... Most non-profits are always looking for any volunteers and people wanting to engage. Advocacy is another avenue. If there's something that you feel like is wrong and needs to be changed, advocating to the politicians on whatever issues. There are issues around human trafficking that we would like to see change. So people talking to their politicians and educating them. If that is what you feel called to do, reach out and connect with someone that's already doing something similar and learn from them and figure out your next steps.
Carolyn Keller: Right. Finding the right connections, a good network and having the right partnerships. We very rarely do things on our own, so I love that advice. To your point about starting a nonprofit - If starting a nonprofit is not your calling, sometimes it's as easy as incorporating some of your passions within your business. Which reminds me that I didn’t even ask you about Sozo Boutique as part of Repurposed. Could you talk briefly about Sozo before we wrap up for today?
Elizabeth Echevarria: Sure, Sozo is actually supporting other organizations doing similar work around the world. What we do is we take items that either survivors those at-risk of being trafficked are making or organizations combatting trafficking are having made [and sell them in the store]. Then it's creating funding for either the organization or for that individual that's exiting a trafficking situation.
So we sell those items in our store and are also going to start going out and doing more tabling for Sozo. They include items like jewelry bags, clothing…all kinds of things, lotions from thistle farms. [The products are] from India, China, Belgium, Africa… here in Tennessee… all over the world.
We're always looking for connections for those as well. So if someone knows of an organization that might have an item that would be good for us to sell through our Sozo Boutique I’d love to be connected. You can purchase those items at Repurposed. It's a good gift for someone that has everything. People like to get gifts that they know are supporting a good cause - it makes them feel good about the purchase.
Carolyn Keller: Thank you so much for your support of this work in the region and more broadly across the world too. It's really great to see you able to bring everything together to make Repurposed a really special place for all the work that you do. If someone wants to get in touch with you, learn more about Living in Liberty, maybe volunteer at Repurposed… What's the best way they can reach out to you?
Elizabeth Echevarria: The easiest way to do that is go to our website https://www.livinginliberty.org/ There's information on volunteering, getting a speaker, all the things that they might wanna do, and ways to connect and contact individuals. If they're really struggling with the connection, they can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can connect them to the right person within Living in Liberty
Carolyn Keller: Sounds great! Thank you so much for joining me today. It was really great to spend time with you and look forward to seeing all the exciting things that are coming in the future for Living at Liberty.
Elizabeth Echevarria: Thank you so much, Carolyn. You've always been such a big supporter and champion with Living in Liberty and Repurposed. I can't thank you enough for taking the time with me today.
Learn more about Repurposed:
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