Tawnya Dunaway has possessions today she never expected to have.

"I've got my own apartment now, a car," said the resident of west Columbus.

Something else Dunaway now has, somewhat to her amazement: respect from co-workers and a chance to mentor new employees where she works.

Dunaway is in her third year working at Freedom a la Cart, a full-service catering operation that takes survivors of human trafficking off the streets and provides them job skills.

Without Freedom a la Cart, Dunaway said, there would be no stability in her life. She was staying in a homeless shelter when she was offered a part-time position with the social enterprise.

Dunaway shakes her head when she thinks back to those days and how her life has changed.

"It feels good to have people look up to me ... instead of being someone people look down on," she said. "I love helping the new girls."

Freedom a la Cart grew out of a food cart purchased in 2011 to help provide income for the nonprofit's predecessor organization, Doma International. It now has a new home in northwest Columbus, said executive director Paula Haines.

After operating out of the kitchen at the Community Shelter Board's Van Buren Drive facility south of Franklinton, Freedom a la Cart has relocated to space in the Tree of Life Ministry Center on Arlington Centre Boulevard inside the former headquarters of CompuServe.

"We're in a very strong period of growth," said Haines, who started as a volunteer with Freedom a la Cart five years ago at the organization's major annual fundraiser, called Eat Up, Columbus. This year's fundraiser will take place Feb. 10 at St. Charles Preparatory School.

Haines joined the board of directors in 2014, became interim director in 2016 and now has the post.

She said she was attracted to Freedom a la Cart because it represented an opportunity to work with women "who society has kind of shunned, and help them see their value and try to get them back on their feet."

Last year, Freedom a la Cart worked with more than 220 survivors of human trafficking, Haines said. The organization provided job training to 33 of those women, including 13 who found jobs as a result, she said.

"These women we're working with, we're out walking with them when they get their driver's license, when they pick up their first paycheck," Haines said. "These ladies are re-establishing custody of their kids, relationships with their families.

"I feel like I've found my purpose in life."

Jessica Levy, a German Village resident, has been executive chef with Freedom a la Cart for the past 18 months, although she's been a volunteer the past three years. She said she was attracted to the operation because of the light it sheds on an important issue.

"I think a lot of people think (human trafficking is) in other countries," Levy said. "It's in our city, on our front porches. It's happening here.'

Freedom a la Cart is among nonprofit organizations invited to participate in a chili cook-off from 3 to 6 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Clintonville Woman's Club, 3951 N. High St.

Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children ages 6-12.

"Freedom a la Cart is a family," said club member Shirley Palumbo. "I am privileged to be part of that family.

"It's an approach that is therapeutic, that has restorative justice at the base of it. I have seen so many women come in afraid to make eye contact, not trusting anyone, being so fragile, and in the span of just a few months you see hope in their eyes. You see them laughing and smiling and reaching out to each other."

kparks@thisweeknews.com

@KevinParksTW1