Monday, September 26, 2022

New Wilmington business has a surprising way to fight human trafficking

The person sitting in this chair could be part of the epidemic of human trafficking. The person standing behind him or her could be part of the solution. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
The person sitting in this chair could be part of the epidemic of human trafficking. The person standing behind him or her could be part of the solution. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

WILMINGTON — Missio is a new hair-product company with a tough goal — getting into 90 percent of the region’s salons by the end of 2017. It’s an ambitious mission that has less to do with selling product and more to do with fighting human trafficking.

For most, that requires some explanation.

Husband and wife co-founders Kyle and Lorin Van Zandt launched Missio in 2017 with the hope of donating their proceeds to non-profits on the front line of the sex trafficking industry. But the couple had a more hands-on approach in mind, too.

“I’ve been a hair stylist since I was 15, I’ve always felt it was a unique industry in terms of the relationship, it is a very personal, intimate relationship,” Lorin said. “It came to me over time that this kind of relationship provided a lot of potential to reach out to people at risk.”

As part of her work with a non-profit in California, Lorin helped serve women who were emerging from human trafficking. Part of her work included giving manicures, pedicures and haircuts to these women.

“There was a woman who had been a victim of this industry, and she had literally had chunks of her hair torn out from where it was pulled so hard,” Lorin said. “A close friend of mine closed her salon on a Sunday and we brought her in. Her demeanor was very closed off, she barely wanted to look at me. But, when we were done, and I showed her in the mirror, she was touching it, laughing, smiling so hard she was crying.”

Lorin found that many of her colleagues in the hair stylist world had also had clients whom they were concerned about. In their experience, part of coerced sex work often included trips to salons. Lorin and her husband Kyle saw the opportunity to use the personal relationships hair stylists have with their clients to help fight human trafficking.

The Van Zandts started researching the issue. They worked with professional counselors, law enforcement agents and non-profits to develop what they call their “Salon Field Guide.” The guide includes signs to help identify victims of human trafficking.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, North Carolina ranks high nationally for reported victims. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY NHTH)
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, North Carolina ranks high nationally for reported victims. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY NHTH)

The couple has since moved back to their native North Carolina, which ranks as the 10th worst for human trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Lorin started reaching out to local salons to teach classes for Wilmington-area salons, instructing stylists on what to look for and how to help.

Missio's 'Salon Field Guide,' a refresher checklist for stylists who have taken the Van Zandts' course. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Missio’s ‘Salon Field Guide,’ a refresher checklist for stylists who have taken the Van Zandts’ course. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

“We’re working to dispel a lot of misconceptions about this issue. There is no socioeconomic or racial ‘normal’ for this, it cuts across all lines,” Lorin said. “We’re essentially looking for natural ways to just use that relationship that exists already to check in on people we’re concerned about without making them feel uncomfortable or like they’re being interrogated.”

The course, developed in conjunction with law enforcement and counselors, features both signs to look for and tips on how to gather more information. Key signs include clients who have unexplained bruises and other injuries, unpredictable moods and what Lorin called “third party presence.”

“We’re trying to deconstruct this ‘shackled and thrown in the trunk of car’ narrative,” Lorin said. “It’s far more common that we’re seeing controlling relationships that have become increasingly unhealthy over time. We call that emotional shackles.”

According to the Van Zandts, a ‘third party presence’ isn’t always what people expect – a menacing pimp. A third party can be a family member, “an aunt or a grandmother,” or a boyfriend or a husband who seems, at first, to have a “trusted romantic relationship” with the client.

Lauren Farraher, co-owner of Sage Salon, attended one of Lorin Van Zandt’s first classes.

“It opened my eyes to a lot of things I would not have thought of,” Farraher said. “I think any stylist has those situations where you maybe wonder, without necessarily knowing what to look for – or what to do about it. I feel like I have some tools now.”

Broaching the topic of human trafficking is difficult, but the Van Zandts hope to offer some helpful approaches. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Broaching the topic of human trafficking is difficult, but the Van Zandts hope to offer some helpful approaches. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

In the six weeks since the couple started, Lorin has she’s taught over a dozen courses. Salons that take the course can place Missio’s ‘M’ logo in the window – Lorin says she hopes it can become a symbol that the salon is a “safe place,” even if the salon doesn’t sell their products.

It’s that sense that the Van Zandts are hoping to “be in” most of the salons by the end of the year.

“This isn’t about Missio single-handedly winning the war on human trafficking,” Kyle Van Zandt said. “It is too big for us to take on alone. It’s about helping to bring some light to the issue. It’s about doing our small part in our area of influence, alongside many other approaches. It’s going to take a united and widespread effort.

That’s not to say the Van Zandts aren’t proud of their products.

“We could have just white-labeled pre-manufactured products,” Kyle said. “But we didn’t want to compromise our purpose with under-performing products. We put in a lot of time and energy to make sure our products perform at the highest level.”

As Kyle Van Zandt put it, a product that sells well enables them to give more to local non-profits like A Safe Place and Five 14 Revolution. The product is also important, the Van Zandts believe, because it their way of opening up conversation.

“It’s an excuse or opportunity to talk about an issue that doesn’t get talked about a lot,” Kyle said.

Lorin added, “It can be a difficult issue to talk about, and people often ask – well, ‘what can we do about it?’ – it’s so dark and so hopeless. We’re trying to bring some light to that dark place. We think having some practical, hands-on ways to fight it is a good way to inspire hope in the midst of this injustice.”

For more information about Missio, including their involvement with fighting human trafficking, visit the company website here.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001. If you liked this story, please consider signing up for our free morning headlines email.

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