Willowbend Farms is a local nonprofit organization that works to rehabilitate the lives of survivors of human trafficking & sexual exploitation through extending an invitation of safety and hope.
The Willowbend Farm team, along with volunteers, facilitate the restoration and transformation of survivors. Their core foundation is based on the Biblical principles of the fruits of the Spirit: hope, joy and love.
Co-founder and president of Willowbend Farms Sarah McKinnis said that the nonprofit organization hopes to ignite joy and inspire love within the survivors.
“The women we serve we lovingly call the Women of the Willow,” McKinnis said. “They come here seeking a new life of healing.”
The Women of the Willow are survivors who have made the decision to pursue transformation through a restorative journey interlaced with a strong faith and a community-based support system.
McKinnis said Willowbend Farms was formed as a result of a personal and extended wrestling with her calling in life.
“I tell most people that I got into this kicking and screaming,” McKinnis said. “I didn’t think that [human trafficking] had anything to do with me until I had someone speak it into my life a few years ago.”
Willowbend Farms provides a trauma-informed, two-year aftercare program where the needs of the individuals are assessed and emphasized to provide a professional, holistic and strategic approach to care.
In addition to rehabilitation and restoration, the team at Willowbend Farms has the opportunity to partner with local and national law enforcement agencies in order to rescue survivors of human trafficking.
“We were able to assist the National [Human Trafficking] Hotline and rescue another young lady and get her off to another state,” McKinnis said.
McKinnis has partnered with several Lee University students and clubs in order to raise awareness for Willowbend Farms and its mission.
Freshman public relations major Angelia Bennett serves as a Community Builder in her dorm and was recently given the opportunity to host an event for the dorm in partnership with Willowbend Farms.
Bennett said this event inspired her to get more involved with the work that Willowbend Farms is doing.
“I fell in love with their mission,” Bennett said. “[Now,] I’m on the media relations and community relations teams, so I’m constantly looking for new opportunities for them to find places to share their mission.”
Bennett believes students should get involved by using their resources to raise awareness of human trafficking.
“We all have something to give,” Bennett said. “If you have time, give your time. If you have money, give your money.”
Willowbend Farms accepts donations and also sells products hand-crafted by the Women of the Willow.
“We use all organic, natural ingredients, and it’s all hand-made here in Cleveland,” McKinnis said. “We do body oil, lotions, beard oils, [etc.], and 100 percent of the proceeds go to Willowbend Farms.”
During his final semester, Lee alumnus Taylor Woodruff worked alongside McKinnis and fellow Upsilon members to design a 5k titled “Run for Her Freedom.”
“I was a senior member of Upsilon at the time, so I had our chaplain, CJ Owens, use it as one of our service projects,” Woodruff said. “We were able to bring Greek life into the volunteer aspect of the 5k.”
Woodruff said that volunteering with Willowbend Farms allows for the unique opportunity to simultaneously see the impact and understand the purpose of your volunteer work.
“This is one of the opportunities that lets you see the difference in what you are doing,” Woodruff said. “We’re not just doing something for service hours; we’re legitimately helping someone rehabilitate their life.”
Willowbend Farms is looking forward to partnering with the community to host another 5k in October 2019, as well as celebrating the second anniversary of its founding in March of 2017.
Along with this celebration comes the news that Willowbend Farms will be opening its first home in the beginning of May 2019.
“We are extremely excited,” McKinnis said. “We really look forward to partnering with Sharp-Davis, other Lee students and the community to get the home ready for the women.”
The home will serve as long-term housing for the Women of the Willow, as well as a facility for education, vocational training and much more.
McKinnis said her favorite aspect of working with the Women of the Willow is the reclaiming of their joy.
“My favorite part is hearing them laugh…hearing joy,” McKinnis said. “If you can get them past their fear and into experiencing a life that is filled with hope and joy, that’s where it’s at.”
McKinnis believes college-aged individuals are vital aspects of the fight against human-trafficking.
“This generation is the one that is going to change human trafficking,” McKinnis said. “Having partnerships with colleges, Sharp-Davis and anyone else that wants to come alongside is amazing and welcomed.”
For updates about Willowbend Farms, follow their Instagram at @willowbendfarms.
To find volunteer opportunities, donate or to request a speaker, visit their website.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1+(888) 373-7888.