Milwaukee Beauty Store Helps Sexual Abuse Victims Get Back On Their Feet

Nov 29, 2019

Wisconsin has seen reports for sex trafficking across the state. Milwaukee's neighborhood Walnut Hill is a high source of sex trafficking and prostitution, according to Franciscan Peacemakers. The religious organization opened a shop that aims at helping women and victims of sexual abuse find housing and employment.

The Franciscan Peacemakers store is at the corner of Lisbon and 33rd streets, next to a coffee shop. A doorbell goes off as you open the door and you're greeted with the calming aroma of the goods made and sold here. A beautiful display of beauty products spans across tables.

Tucked away behind the storefront, there are mixers and industrial funnels — almost like a bakery, but instead, the machines mix melted wax with essential oils into candles. They also make soaps and lotions.

The industrial lotion dispenser allows Franciscan Peacemakers to fill bottles in large amounts.
Credit Olivia Richardson

Franciscan Peacemakers is a Milwaukee-based, nonprofit organization that helps women and people who have been victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Steve Przedpelski, executive director of Franciscan Peacemakers, says a lot of the women have alcohol and drug dependency problems.

"Over the years, we learned the limitations of the recovery process. Because all the women we've worked with over the years have an alcohol or drug issue, and the recovery process, 90 days of treatment, we found typically, it's not enough time for any person to really recover," Prezedpelski says.

Roughly two and a half decades ago, the Milwaukee Police Department reached out to the founders of Franciscan Peacemakers to see if they knew of ways to find safe pathways to get women off the streets.

Prezedpelski says Franciscan Peacemakers saw much of what Thistle Farms in Nashville, Tenn., saw – women would stop using drugs, but they returned to prostitution because they needed money. The women would have ongoing misdemeanors and sometimes felonies. No one would hire the women with convictions, according to Prezedpelski. So, inspired by Thistle Farms, Franciscan Peacemakers adopted the process of providing rent-free housing for up to two years.

This clothing rack provides women who come into the store sweaters, jackets, hats and gloves — whatever they need to keep warm.
Credit Olivia Richardson

At least some of the women who work at Franciscan Peacemakers work in the shop making soap, lotions and candles, another adoption from Thistle Farms. Everything is made in house. The employment allows women to establish themselves and save for security deposits when they're ready to secure permanent housing. It's also good training, according to Associate Director Mary Leach-Sumlin.

"There are some women who have worked before, and there are some women who've never held a job. So, that gives them training — as far as the responsibilities of having to work, having to be responsible, having to be accountable, having to report for work every day, and give something to be put on the resume," says Leach-Sumlin.

READ: Sex Trafficking Is 'A Crime That Doesn't Discriminate'

Prezedpelski knows that not every person who has experienced some type of sexual violence is going to walk in and turn their life around. Nor is change a requirement for help.

Leach-Sumlin says that it's a matter of recognizing that sexual abuse, and its consequences, is around us.

"I had no idea. I thought people on the street are on there because that's what they wanted to do. I had no idea that the number of molestation and abuse, I had no idea that it was as rampant as it really is," Leach-Sumlin says.

In the back of the building, there's a room for women to come in, rest, and get free food and coffee.
Credit Olivia Richardson

In the back of the Franciscan Peacemakers building, there's a room where women can come in and rest. There's free coffee, free food, and comfortable chairs. The room is clean, warm, and it's somewhat chic. There are also jackets, blankets, and sweaters the women can take if they need them.

As a nonprofit, Franciscan Peacemakers uses funds from the shop to provide women pay for jobs at the store. Housing, street ministry work, and anything extra comes from 900 donors, mostly through private Catholic Foundations. The organization doesn't receive government assistance.