A new thrift shop has opened in National City, but the new 8,000-square-foot second-hand store isn't like any other.
The mission of The Journey Thrift Store, "Helping Victims Rise," is to help those who are victims of human trafficking.
“All proceeds of this store go to help victims of human trafficking,” Marisa Ugarte, executive director of the thrift store, said.
Ugarte, director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition (BSCC), said she just doesn’t want customers to come in and shop; she wants them to be educated about the exploitation of human trafficking.
“Half of fighting human trafficking is being aware that it exists,” she said.
The Journey Thrift Store is the first thrift shop of its kind, with a human trafficking library equipped with books, videos and pamphlets. Because of the abundant amounts of material, the library located at the back of the store is still a work in progress.
“The more the community finds out what we’re doing, the more they are informed, which is important,” Ugarte said.
Ugarte said National City is a hotbed for human trafficking and prostitution.
The human trafficking activist mainly blames this on the military’s presence on the Main Street side of National City, saying that the military “are not strong enough in enforcing their (criminal) codes.”
She also said military personnel are the ones who are mostly known to solicit a prostitute on the Main Street side of town.
Main Street in National City, along with El Cajon Boulevard, ranks among the worst prostitution spots in San Diego County, Ugarte said.
An all-volunteer staff operates the store.
Some volunteers are victims of human trafficking, others are students from the Sweetwater Unified School District who need community service hours fulfilled for graduation, and local organizations such as the Easter Seals — an organization that assists people with disabilities and special needs — are frequent volunteers.
The shop also gets court ordered volunteers for people who need community service hours.
Having victims working in the store is all part of the healing and recovery process.
“We don’t believe in in-house services because we believe that our victims should begin to integrate themselves into the community,” Ugarte said.
As volunteers, victims learn the skills of running a business, giving them a foundation to move forward with in their recovery.
Ugarte’s organization, the BSCC, also sends these victims to school and, for many, English classes.
Ugarte said many of the volunteers and victims come from different parts of the globe and don’t know English.
Working at the thrift shop is not a requirement, but an option.
The thrift shop also provides a place for victims to get clothes and other items they may need.
Ugarte has been fighting human trafficking in the United States since 1997 when she founded the BSCC, an organization aimed at ending human trafficking in the Americas.
Her fight against human trafficking though started long before she got to the states.
“Since I was very young, in Mexico City, I started seeing the exploitation of children for sex with big honchos and big politicians, so I decided to do something about it,” she said.
Eastlake Church has been one of the biggest supporters of the thrift shop. She said without their support the thrift shop probably wouldn’t be around today.
Eastlake Church was amazed with the job Ugarte had done with the BCSS that they wanted to help in any way they could.
“A few years ago we felt compelled to get involved addressing the issue of human trafficking,” Kevin McPeak, associate pastor of Eastlake Church, said. “It is tough finding organizations that are specializing and doing effective work. We were so impressed by the BCSS and how effective the BCSS was.”
The store is named The Journey Thrift Store because it is a journey to recovery.
“(The name) comes from the long journey of victims,” Ugarte said. “It is a whole journey to survive and rise up.”