Faith in ActionMagazine

one stitch at a time

Massillon, Ohio, Combats Human Trafficking

Massillon, Ohio, with its tidy homes and midwestern charm, could easily serve as a set for the movie “Pleasantville.” The blue–collar folks who live there are hard working and proud, especially of the local high school football team.

Dot Keller shows off some of her dresses.

Dot Keller shows off some of her dresses.

“However, just like anywhere in the world, if you look around hard enough, you’re going to see where sin has come in and made some strongholds,” says Major Thomas Perks of the Massillon Corps.

That was certainly true last year when Massillon police asked Perks and the corps members to help them solve a human trafficking case.

“[The traffickers] think they can come into a small town like Massillon and be under the radar,” Perks explained.

The police had received a call from Detroit, where a mother said her 19-year-old daughter and 3–month–old grandchild were being held in Massillon against their will. The daughter was being forced to perform sex acts and to sell drugs.

“The police were able to rescue the daughter and her child, who were both scheduled to be sold separately into slavery,” Perks said.

Safe at last

The Salvation Army in Massillon moved the daughter and her child into a hotel for the night as their traffickers looked for them. The next day, the daughter and child were on a bus back to Detroit. Then another snag developed.

The woman’s would–be captors knew where her mother lived, so The Salvation Army’s human trafficking division in Detroit made arrangements to meet the woman and her child upon arrival, and then whisked them away to safety.

Becky Mathess, the director of social services in Massillon, says, “That night in Detroit, they actually met her at the bus station and put her into a shelter to keep her safe. She is now in permanent housing.”

Perks said he was glad The Salvation Army could help.

“That’s when it’s awesome to be a part of The Salvation Army because you can reach out anywhere in the world,” Perks says. “Any one of the Army’s locations can be quickly used to help free someone.”

Used by God

“Bringing freedom to people is one of the battles that we fight as The Salvation Army.”

Perks called the sexual trafficking episode a “huge ball of terror,” and said Massillon also has a heroin problem.

“As you drive through Massillon, you think, what a nice little town. It’s not a huge place like Cleveland or Toledo or any of those larger cities, but all of that trickles down and finds its way here,” he says.

For Mathess, the episode was personal, as are most of her cases. She was once a victim of domestic violence who found herself homeless.

“I don’t want anyone to experience any of the pain and hardship that I went through in my life,” Mathess says.

“I believe God has chosen me and brought me here. Every day, I feel a sense of accomplishment in knowing that I’m making a difference in people’s lives.”

Back to basics

One way the corps is making a difference is with its Adult Living Skills Sewing Class where, each Tuesday morning, 5 to 10 women gather.

Judith Jones, community relations director at the corps, said the class harkens back to the early days of The Army’s fight against sexual trafficking. The Army opened homes for women and girls and taught them life skills.

Louise Stone sews a pillow.

Louise Stone sews a pillow.

“That was a way to bring women out of trafficking and prostitution and give them an income so they didn’t have to be on the streets,” Jones says. “In the old days, The Salvation Army … gave them the skills to become seamstresses and that’s really the origins of the sewing program. In a sense, that’s what we’re doing here.”

The women meet from 10 a.m. to noon, and while none of them is a victim of trafficking, Major Linda–Jo Perks said the clothing they are learning to make could potentially be sold.

About two years ago, the corps converted a computer lab into a sewing center. Major Linda–Jo Perks says, “We love sewing and we love talking. When they are skilled, our plan is to help them find a job, if they want one.”

Teaching skills

“We’re going to give them lessons and help them along the way. They can start their own business or sell on eBay.”

The class leader is Dot Keller, a humble woman who is reluctant to talk about herself. But Perks calls her a great designer and sewer who is a mentor to the other women.

Keller, 86, has been sewing since age 13 when she learned the craft from her mother. She still uses a Singer sewing machine built in 1954.

“I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” she says. “It’s a gem.”

She first thought about giving back to the community by using her skills when she learned about the need for children’s clothing in Africa to help AIDS orphans.

“I thought, I can do that,” Dot recalls.

Giving back—100 fold

Keller’s first project was to make 100 dresses for an organization called “Little Dresses for Africa.” In 2013, she made another 100 dresses for the victims of a tornado in Oklahoma. Perks delivered them to her niece, who is a Salvation Army officer there.

Last year, Keller made another 100 dresses for a back–to–school giveaway at the corps and is now working on another batch of 100 dresses for a distribution this spring.

“I just keep sewing and I enjoy it,” Dot says. “It’s my way of giving back. It’s a fellowship. If I didn’t sew, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Major Linda–Jo Perks said Dot’s “caring heart shines through her craft.”

“She is teaching mothers how to do it,” she says. “It’s great to give a gift. But the gift of knowledge and skill will continue on and perpetuate itself.”

Gabrielle Miller has been coming to the corps for nine years. She began attending the sewing class last year. And with Keller’s help, Miller made dresses, a car seat cover, and other items.

“She’s taught me all the techniques I need to know and she’s still teaching me,” Miller says.

Louise Stone, who attended The Salvation Army in England, came to Massillon when her husband’s job was transferred there. She is a “novice sewer,” she says, but is learning.

“It’s good fun and I’m making some very cool stuff,” she says.

by Robert Mitchell

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