For six hours every week, Leah Gunn works part time pouring hot wax for a line of floral and fruit scented candles by Memphis-based candle company RE+NEW+ALL.
The best part of the job, Gunn said, is watching her hands do the work.
“When I started to work for RE+NEW+ALL, I hadn’t seen my hands touch a lot of productive cleanliness in my life,” Gunn said. “In my life, I found myself using my hands for things that were unholy in order to make it and, for me, it really was a very sobering experience … to put my hands to good use.”
For nearly two decades starting at 13 years old, Gunn, now 32, sold her body or sold drugs — or both — to survive.
About 18 months ago, her life changed when she was admitted into A Way Out, a two-year program to help former victims of sex trafficking transition into new lives. It is funded by the nonprofit Citizens for Community Values.
RE+NEW+ALL is led by Lee Howard, board member and former Citizens for Community Values employee. Like Gunn, all of Howard’s employees were once sex trafficking victims.
From art therapy to business venture
In its earliest form, RE+NEW+ALL was not a business — it was art therapy.
In 2018, when Howard was still an employee at Citizens for Community Values, she relied heavily on volunteers who donated their time and resources to create activities for the women in the A Way Out program to do between school, therapy sessions and Christian teachings.
Sometimes she had enough for a full schedule, but other times she said there was more downtime for the women than she liked. That’s when her mother-in-law, Amy Howard, offered her art studio at the corner of Broad Avenue and Hollywood Street in Binghampton for the women to make crafts.
“Every week I would bring them,” Lee Howard said. “When I saw the women working with their hands and how they responded just to the art aspect, I really saw there was something to it. But in that time, the women started talking with Amy and expressed that they wished they had the opportunity to make some income while they were in the program.”
While A Way Out provides free housing, food, access to therapy and rehabilitation service and other basic needs for the women, even a small income could mean little freedoms like buying their preferred brand of deodorant or picking up a birthday card for a family member or friend.
That’s when the candle company was launched. But under Amy Howard’s direct sales company at A Maker’s Studio, only merchants could purchase the candles in bulk for resale. Eventually, Lee Howard wanted to expand sales to individual customers too, and RE+NEW+ALL was born as a separate company.
While Gunn pours the candles, 19-year-old Kelsea Vaughn does inventory and restocks shelves. Iris, a 24-year-old employee who asked that her last name not be published for her safety, adds labels and the handwritten tags that let customers know the names of the women whose lives are being changed by their purchases.
Each woman is paid $10 an hour for her work.
Storm damage stalls candle-making
Lee Howard never planned a life of entrepreneurship.
While running the business, Howard is also a full-time graduate student at Harding University studying trauma therapy. Her plan was to work in trauma research, but she felt called to RE+NEW+ALL.
The product line was created in 2018 under her mother-in-law’s company. It relaunched as a separate private company in September.
“When I took it, I didn’t get those customers because they were direct sales,” Howard said. “So I started a company with four employees and no customers and no formal business background.”
Not only that, but Howard said she hopes to continue to hire employees from the A Way Out program as new women are brought in.
Four months since the launch, the candles are being sold on RE+NEW+ALL’s website and by 10 retailers, including the company’s first international seller in Australia.
While the company has been growing, Howard said she experienced her first setback in early January when a severe thunderstorms hit Memphis and northern Mississippi.
According to the National Weather Service, the storm and the accompanying high winds knocked down trees and power lines and damaged homes and buildings. Amy Howard’s studio where RE+NEW+ALL is based was among those damaged.
The storm tore holes in the roof, ripped a roll-up garage door off the side of the building and left the warehouse flooded. A tarp still covers the roof, but every time it rains more water gets inside. Nearly a dozen five-gallon buckets are scattered around the warehouse to catch water and keep merchandise dry while they wait for repairs.
Despite the damage, Howard said all her inventory was saved.
Since the Jan. 11 storm, the women have only been making candles as needed to fulfill orders. They have largely depended on that inventory to stay afloat while making plans for a new work space in a building owned by Memphis Tabernacle in Cooper-Young, where Howard is a member.
The church offered her company a free space in a new building it purchased, but Howard will have to pay for any renovation needed to prepare the space for her employees.
Like any for-profit business, proceeds from sales will be used to pay for the studio renovations, Howard said.
Running a business, planning a future
While Howard said she loves working with Gunn, Vaughn and Iris, her plan is not for them to stay forever. Instead, her company is meant to be a stepping stone for them on the way to fulfilling full-time employment.
When she brings new employees from A Way Out into RE+NEW+ALL, they go through an unpaid nine-week training period where they learn every aspect of the candle-making business. Once their training is complete, they get their work assignment and join the payroll.
The goals the women set for themselves vary. Some of them are personal. Gunn wants to reconnect with her 16-year-old daughter, and Iris wants to get more comfortable sharing her story without fear.
Others already know their professional goals. One employee who had a dream of becoming a baker has already left RE+NEW+ALL for an apprenticeship that became a full-time position at a local bakery. Vaughn, who is working toward her GED, plans to enroll in community college before moving on to the University of Memphis to earn a degree and become a children’s trauma therapist.
“I grew up without any parents,” Vaughn said.
She described a mother who abused drugs and a father who died when she was 12. He was never present in her life before then, she said.
“I just think it’s really important that children have somebody that they can talk to. Somebody who’s been there … I think I can relate to them, Vaughn said.
No matter what goal her employees hope to achieve, Howard said she wants the professional experience they gain to be a stepping stone that makes them feel prepared in ways that only working for a company can provide.
“I specifically didn’t want to start a nonprofit,” Howard said. “The candle business is a $3 billion business. So if people are buying candles, why can’t we create a successful candle company that does good, all the while supporting the nonprofits that we work with?
“They get to implement their recovery strategies in a safe neutral working environment that allows them to not only build their resume and earn their income, but when triggers happen, we’re able to process through those things and develop the skills they need.”
Desiree Stennett covers economic development and business at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at email@example.com, 901-529-2738 or on Twitter: @desi_stennett.