By BRENNA GRITEMAN
In just one year, Crissy Bontrager watched each of a group of formerly trafficked women transform from “a shell of a person” to a lady “who had some confidence, had some dignity, some self-worth.”
And it all started with candles.
Through Eleventh Candle Co. in Columbus, women who are recovering from sex trafficking are given a job pouring and labeling handmade candles, the sale of which benefits themselves and other women who will come up through the program, along with women and girls facing the same crisis in Ethiopia. Along the way, the rehabilitated women are paid above minimum wage, pick up life skills like budgeting and resume building, receive gym and yoga memberships and undergo needed counseling from Bontrager, a 1991 graduate of McComb High School.
The women come to Legacy, the nonprofit under which Eleventh Candle Co. operates, through Catch Court, a two-year rehabilitation program for sex trafficked women, operated through the Franklin County court system. The women stay in the company’s employ for nine months before “graduating,” often to more permanent employment, their own apartment and a role in helping to raise their own children or grandchildren. Bontrager said the sale of 25 Eleventh Candle Co. candles provides for one week of employment for one woman, along with an invaluable feeling of self-worth.
“I feel very privileged because I don’t just sell these candles. I get to walk with these women,” she said. “We’re not just giving them a paycheck. We’re giving them hope.”
The company is named “11th” in reference to the 11th hour in which miracles are said to happen. And in a state that ranks fourth in the nation in human trafficking, miracles are needed to transform lives. The National Human Trafficking Hotline received 147 reports of sex trafficking in Ohio from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2017.
Globally, the United Nations estimates human trafficking as a $32 billion annual industry. In contrast, Starbucks’ annual profit is about $20 billion.
Legacy and Eleventh Candle Co. were founded by Amber Runyon of Columbus, a hospice nurse whose mission work took her to countries around the world. In Ethiopia, surrounded by starving children in the streets and pregnant women trading sex for bread, Runyon felt compelled to help women vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and human trafficking in both Ethiopia and Columbus. Legacy has since helped build a school and a soccer field in Ethiopia and has partnered with a family support association to employ women in a co-op creating various artisan goods in the African nation.
Bontrager met Runyon as she was finishing her master’s degree in counseling and felt called to get involved.
“I just sort of stuck around and started making candles in her basement with her,” she said.
Eleventh Candle Co. sells a collection of 11 signature scents, along with a variety of seasonal options. Year-round, the scent honey-fig remains the top seller. The company aims to become a full home goods line and has begun employing women imprisoned in the Marysville Ohio Reformatory for Women to make room sprays.
The symbolism of women finding redemption and empowerment through the manufacturing of candles is not lost on Bontrager, who says, “If you light a candle in a dark room, the dark has to flee.”
Candles and other home goods can be ordered online at eleventhcandleco.com or from Bontrager herself at firstname.lastname@example.org.