When you select your Christmas wrap this year, consider purchasing some that already comes with a gift – freedom for a child victim of slave trafficking.

Troy Titus, a youth minister for Martelle Christian Church in eastern Iowa, hopes many online shoppers in America will find First Christmas (www.firstchristmasgiftwrap.com) and do just that.  He sponsors Youth 4 Rapha, a coalition of youth groups in the Midwest who are fundraising this Christmas to help build safe houses in Southeast Asia where young girls who have been rescued from bonded servitude and sexual exploitation can heal and gain necessary skills for building a normal and fulfilling life.  Rapha is the Hebrew word for healing and the name is taken from Rapha House, an organization that runs such homes and the one Troy selected to receive the funds they receive.

Modern Slavery

loveless1At a Christ in Youth summer camp a few years ago, Troy’s high school youth were introduced to the reality of modern worldwide slavery.  They learned that an estimated 27 million people are in bondage, more than were seized from Africa during four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (Kevin Bales, Disposable People) and that in 1850 a slave that was sold in the southern United States for the equivalent of $40,000 today now costs an average of only $110.

Most of these people are in bonded slavery – forced labor for an employer who requires long hours often seven days a week for little or no wages.  Many are attempting to pay back a debt their parents or even grandparents contracted that increases at such exorbitant interest rates that full payment can never be made.

The youth group also heard that human trafficking is the world’s third largest criminal enterprise after drugs and weapons (U.S. Department of State) and over 2 million children a year are exploited in the global commercial sex trade (UNICEF).

Can anyone really make a difference?

The problem seems unsolvable.  But International Justice Ministry (IJM) and Rapha House think action makes a difference.  IJM, which investigates and documents cases of bonded slavery, then works with local law enforcement within a country’s legal system to free the slaves and bring slaveholders to justice, notes that when one offender in a neighborhood is successfully prosecuted, others take note and abuse is curtailed.  On their website, Gary Haugen, IJM President & CEO, says, “We’ve discovered that slave masters and traffickers expect their opponents to show up late and quit early – and they are simply not intimidated. What they do not expect is fearless, sacrificial love that does not go away.”

Children freed by IJM are placed in temporary care to await a permanent place of safety.  That’s where Rapha House comes in.  It offers four levels of help:  safehouses (“a place of physical rescue to girls who have known severe abuse and exploitation”); halfway houses (where girls “experience transformational healing . . . and are given the tools necessary to rebuild their future,” like vocational training); reintegration programs (where girls may stay a few days or several years receiving family counseling, job placement help, start-up loans/grants); and prevention programs (services for at-risk children and even “income generation projects” for a girl’s whole family”).

Finding the Right Fundraiser

loveless2_85“We were shocked by the horrific practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them to ‘work’ as prostitutes until they are so filled with disease they are literally thrown out,” explains Troy, describing how his fundraiser evolved.  “I felt moved by God to do something about it.  My youth group also wanted to help, but none of us knew what to do.”

Fundraising was the obvious task, “but there were things I didn’t like about most fundraisers,” states Troy.  “Huge mark up – people paying 10 times more for something they really don’t want, just to support the young person; also, one-time fundraisers where kids knock on the door, get their money, and that is that.  Kidnapping young girls for someone’s selfish gain is not going to go away with a single fundraiser.”

Troy wanted to offer a product at a fair price that people need every year, something people would not feel pressured to buy.  Eventually the idea emerged of combining with other youth groups to sell Christmas wrapping paper.  “I pictured youth groups across America selling wrapping paper glorifying Jesus during the Christmas season as a witness to those we give gifts to.  I could see this becoming an ongoing source of revenue to help put an end to slavery.  All of the profits would go to Rapha House and IJM, two ministries that fight against sex trafficking and other forms of slavery.”

However, such wrapping paper would be difficult to find.  As Troy puts it, “I’ll be honest.  I didn’t think any company would give up profits and print the kind of paper we wanted.  But God knew differently.”  Troy’s wife discovered First Christmas, a wrapping paper company recently started by Cheri Loveless (an LDS Meridian author).  Not only was First Christmas producing Christmas gift wrap with the theme of Christ’s birth, but Cheri’s husband had worked with a Center that followed issues like international slavery.

“When I first spoke with Cheri, I laughed as I told her that I wanted her company to give up their profits so we could give the money to Rapha House,” remembers Troy.  “I will never forget what she said next.  She explained to me that she was very familiar with sex slave trade issues and had hoped that someday their gift wrap would be used as a fundraiser to help such a cause.  I couldn’t believe it!  I was hit with a mix of shock, disbelief, shouting praise to God, thankfulness to the Lord, and sadness that I wasn’t more faithful to God in my efforts early on.  That’s when I realized this was God’s idea, not mine, and He had been working on it long before I ever thought of it.”

That moment was also a defining one for Cheri.  “I immediately wanted to do it.  But people have no idea, when they come to our site, how small and new we are, or how little profit we make because we don’t print our paper overseas.  I had to explain to Troy that I couldn’t just donate the paper.  I would need to recoup my costs.  Also, that if he were too successful, he would put me out of business!”

Nevertheless, Cheri felt strongly about participating.  In late November, five youth groups in the Midwest agreed to be part of Troy’s trial run.  In two weeks, with very little preparation, they sold over 150 orders of First Christmas gift wrap.  Several other churches did not participate simply because they needed more time lead time.  They promised their support for next year.

The same week, Cheri surprised Troy with a call.  She felt she should put the Youth 4 Rapha fundraiser on the First Christmas website for the month of December, something she thought she would do only after her business became profitable.  “I’m uncomfortable trying to sell wrapping paper.  I created it because of its message, not because I wanted a business.  I am much happier thinking part of my profits will go to a dynamic group like Rapha House, doing such difficult and important work.

”  They agreed that 20% of First Christmas profits on certain gift wrap products will go to Youth 4 Rapha.

“Maybe I’m crazy,” said Cheri.  “But it just feels right to me.  It feels more in harmony with celebrating Christmas.”

First Christmas gift wrap is available online at www.firstchristmasgiftwrap.com.