By CHERIL VERNON
A new store has opened in downtown Palestine — an upscale resale shop called the Boutique Tree, which benefits Refuge of Light, a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing a long-term safe home for girls under the age of 18 who have been victimized by sex trafficking.
“We had a ground breaking on May 3 and are now officially open, but we had a soft opening in April 12 for the store,” Refuge of Light Executive Director Norma Mullican told the Herald-Press Thursday.
Refuge of Light got the idea to open a resale shop from its mentoring organization, Wellsprings Living, based in Georgia, which uses proceeds from its resale shops to free up funds for the operation of its organization.
“We have been looking to open a store for the past three years,” Mullican said. “We want to open a store in Tyler, Athens, Jacksonville and Palestine eventually and it just worked out that the first one we were able to open was in Palestine.”
The boutique, open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, is located at 202 W. Oak St., next to the Coed Shop. The shop is run completely by volunteers from Refuge of Light and local churches and organizations.
“It’s not your typical resale shop, it’s very much upscale,” Mullican said. “Some of the things that are donated to us to sell are worth quite a lot. We have some Waterford crystal, a set of Fitz and Floyd dishes and lots of collectibles. Sometimes we get brand new appliances, taken right out of the box.”
The store has a variety of items ranging from furniture, household items, candles, baby items, handbags — a little of everything.
“We sell Fair Trade items including jewelry, scarfs and bags that are made by people who are no longer enslaved around the world. We help support them by having their products in our store, and if you buy from us, it helps Refuge of Light, so it’s a win-win,” Mullican said.
Many of the items in the store are handmade and donated by local church groups or organizations — such as children’s sundresses made by the “We Sew Matter” church group, a group of volunteers in Tyler who paints decorative boxes, a Dallas church which made tote bags and volunteers who crochet scarfs. Brand new baby items were donated by a Tyler-area baby store that went out of business.
The boutique also sells Refuge of Light t-shirts and wristbands and gift certificates.
Throughout the store, there are signs and literature available about Refuge of Light, how to get involved, what the organization does and common misconceptions about sex trafficking.
“We have signs in English and Spanish. We have material available if they want to learn more about it,” Mullican said.
Many Palestine residents who have browsed through the store have not only purchased items but brought back donated items for the store to sell.
“I’ve seen it over and over again. They say they will be right back with something they want to donate,” Mullican said. “One lady bought a baby bed and brought back a very nice wooden table.”
For now, Mullican has moved her office to the boutique. Volunteers are always needed to work in the store.
“There are so many ways to help and be a part of this. You can volunteer to work in the store, though we ask that you sign up for a half day or full day. If you can’t help in that way, come shop here or donate something for us to sell, either way it gets people into the store,” Mullican said.
Having a store downtown has helped in multiple ways — but the main thing that Mullican is proud of is raising awareness about Refuge of Light.
“We love the downtown area. The downtown merchants have been some of our best customers. They have even brought things to us,” Mullican said. “People really like our location and we like being here.”
Since its soft opening in April, cash donations of $3,000 have been brought in.
“That’s been amazing. I think it helps to have a store — a local presence — because it helps raise awareness and gets the community involved to reach these kids,” Mullican said.
About Refuge of Light
Refuge of Light is an East Texas nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing a long-term safe home that provides physical, mental and spiritual healing in an effort to overcome the brutalization of modern day slavery, called ‘sex trafficking’ in the lives of victimized girls under the age of 18 years within the United States.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that God called us to this,” Mullican said. “This is a group of kids that no one cares about, everyone seems to look the other way. But the way I feel about it is like this: If you knew a bus was going to hit someone, wouldn’t you run out and try to stop it? That’s how it is with sex trafficking and we have to stop it. We have to intervene.”
The organization is currently in Phase I of construction for its safe house in an undisclosed location in East Texas.
“We have already started construction for Phase I even though we don’t have all of the money,” Mullican said. “We are hoping to get some of the supplies and services donated. We believe God will provide it when we need it.”
According to Refuge of Light, there are only a handful of shelters with less than 100 total beds in the entire United States for these victims. The majority of these victims are young girls who have fallen prey to the commercial sex industry at the hands of perpetrators known as pimps and johns.
“For the girls that get caught in sex trafficking, once it starts, their life expectancy is only seven short years,” Mullican said.
While many people probably don’t think sex trafficking happens in the East Texas area, Mullican said it is right here in our backyard.
“The average age nationally is 13 but locally in East Texas its 14 or 15. What we see locally is families here that are pulling them into it and drugs are usually involved,” Mullican said. “Two cases in particular, the mom is on drugs and mom is prostituting herself out for drugs, but then the drug dealer says ‘I don’t want you, I want your daughter.’ These kids don’t have anybody to turn to and if they run away, sometimes they run right into the hands of the wrong people.”
Refuge of Light has been working on identifying girls in these situations by getting involved in the community, visiting youth detention centers and programs for first-time youth offenders and shelters for girls.
“We have to be in the middle of it to find them because they don’t self-identify. If you know the signs of sex trafficking and can get them to start trusting you, they start giving you pieces of their stories,” Mullican said. “Most people see these as bad kids, but they are victims.”
Refuge of Light is helping to sponsor “The White Umbrella Campaign” event on Thursday in Tyler that will include a book tour by author Mary Frances Bowley. The event will be held at Green Acres One Ten Student Center, located at 1505 Troup Hwy. in Tyler.
A roundtable discussion led by Refuge of Light will be held for state agencies, district attorney offices and child advocacy groups during the morning.
A 6:30 p.m. worship service will be held for the public to help raise awareness about sex trafficking.
The Refuge of Light’s Boutique Tree is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday in downtown Palestine at 202 W. Oak St. For information, call the boutique at 903-727-0288.
For more information about Refuge of Light, visit www.refugeoflight.org