Awareness push draws in businesses

The upcoming Shelter for Freedom series has pulled in colleges and agencies, but area businesses, too.

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Starting on Thursday, a variety of local organizations and institutions will host Shelter for Freedom, an awareness-building four-day series of fundraisers that will tackle the both domestic and international human trafficking.

It is an event that is likely to draw large numbers of people to hear the music, poetry readings, view an art exhibit and an award-winning documentary. However, the story of this event is not just what will happen on stage, but also behind the scenes.

All proceeds from the event, which will also include an art auction, history lecture, and peace march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, will be donated to the Walla Walla Helpline Women's Shelter.

For many people in Walla Walla it may be the first time hearing of the shelter, but Helpline is hardly new in town.

The agency has provided emergency social services for women in the local community for 35 years, but only recently became the sole shelter for single homeless women in the Walla Walla. In June of last year, Helpline leased a facility, which serves as a temporary place to stay for women in need and they are now searching for a more permanent home.

It is a project that several local businesses have been eager to join. In addition to Walla Walla University, Whitman College, the YWCA and WWCC Women's Center, the list of sponsors for the ambitious event also includes the QualitySmith, Black Tie Limousines, Walla Walla Roastery and Wines of Substance.

Wines of Substance will donate wine, which will be served at several events during the weekend's programs, and will also be providing a chance to contribute to the project on their website.

Jason Huntley is the managing partner at Substance. The company was founded two years ago in collaboration with Gramercy Cellars as a sister winery to Waters, and has emphasized its commitment to education and raising awareness of social issues. Huntley explained how simple a choice it was for Substance to sponsor Shelter for Freedom.

"It's part of our value system," he said, "As a winery, we care about where we live and the community around us."

"People think of Walla Walla as this cozy little community," Huntley continued, "But there are some severe social and community issues. We're just not aware of them. It's our responsibility as citizens of Walla Walla to help raise awareness and help solve some of these issues."

One of those problems? During last year's bitterly cold winter, Helpline worked with close to 50 women who were either sleeping in the streets or living in conditions dangerously close to homelessness. Sadly, however, the building they lease has enough room for only 18 beds.

"There's a lot of suffering that happens on a daily basis," explained Dan Willms, executive director at Helpline.

"What people don't know is the reality of the need in Walla Walla. We often don't see the women on the street, because they're not as visible as homeless men, but it's a real situation in the lives of many women."

Helpline may be having trouble finding a permanent facility in town, but they are certainly not struggling with establishing a vision of how to help Walla Walla's homeless women, and eventually, they hope, men too. Along with providing them temporary shelter, opportunities to do laundry, and work on action plans, employees at Helpline are also educating women who can, in turn, reach out to others who may be subject to abuse. Willms explained that the individuals who his organization helps at the shelter are at prime risk for human trafficking.

"Through their own needs on the street, they can be manipulated into slavery," Willms said.

Shelter for Freedom hopes to raise awareness for problems such as these and educate the public about the issue of human trafficking that affects not only individuals in Eastern Europe, Central America and Africa, but also in the Pacific Northwest.

Willms also explained how Helpline has been instrumental in offering homeless women the chance to get back on their feet and possibly see their children again.

"Many of these women are mothers," Willms said, "Yet they don't have custody of their children because they are homeless. As their lives become stabilized it's an opportunity to reunite families."

For more information, go to www.wallawalla.edu/shelterforfreedom or call Karen Scott at 509-200-0853 or Greg Dodds at 509-527-2851.

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