After a Year Combating Human Trafficking, Houston Coffee Shop Looks for New Location to Continue Fight

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Erica Raggett always dreamed of opening a coffee shop. Every time she walked into one, she scouted the place -- sometimes aware, sometimes subconsciously. Whether as a Teach for America instructor in a north Houston middle school, or while she spent time in Philadelphia as a TFA administrator, or after a return to work as a YES Prep teacher in Houston, Raggett never wavered.

"I always loved coffee shops -- to go there to work, or to study, or just to spend time," Raggett, who helps run A 2nd Cup coffee shop, told Hair Balls earlier this week. Sitting next to her husband, Mark, Raggett was explaining her affinity for the independent shops that have begun to pepper Houston over the past few years.

But at the same time, Raggett couldn't just toss herself into something without knowing there was something larger to be gained. "I couldn't imagine working somewhere and not helping others," she said. And so the notion of the coffee shop sat, remaining but an idea while Raggett and her husband helped the students at YES with science and math.

And then, come late 2010, Raggett joined her husband for an event at their local church. It was a presentation from Love146, a Connecticut-based organization founded to combat child trafficking and exploitation. "They brought this camera into a brothel [in Thailand], and you could see all these girls just lined up," Raggett recounted, discussing the preteens available for the sex tourists. "And their eyes -- they had these eyes that were just empty. There was nothing there. And there was one girl, she was No. 146. She looked like she just got there, because she just had some fight left in her eyes."

That young woman, nameless and numbered, had inspired Love146 to spend the previous decade working to combat child trafficking. The group was simply looking for donations from members of the Houston church that Erica and Mark attended. Instead, while Erica and Mark watched this girl, this 146, peer back, something coalesced.

"What if I used a coffee shop to stop human trafficking?" Raggett remembers wondering. "And it really was a brilliant idea," adds Mark, who immediately jumped aboard the notion. Soon, a name came to them -- A 2nd Cup. A second chance. Another shot at another life for the victims, especially the children, of human trafficking.

Of course, the process would be neither quick nor simple. While the responses ranged from supportive to ecstatic -- "There were really only positive feedback that we got," says Raggett -- hurdles remained. Filing for a 501(c)(3) exemption revealed a handful of other coffee shops around the country that offered similar ideas, running from basic nonprofits to gangland rehabilitation. But there was nothing about trafficking. Nor was there anything in Houston. This was entirely new.

In an entirely unfortunate way, Houston was in prime position to host a trafficking-focused coffee shop. A quarter of all American-based trafficking victims are in Texas, with a plurality coming within Houston. Cantinas, massage parlors, secluded houses and apartments -- the locations are as innocuous as they are difficult to shutter. Just a few weeks ago, 500 Indians were freed from Signal International LLC, which lawyers claimed treated the immigrants as modern indentured servants.

But Raggett's business plan found a receptive audience. Meetings with local figures, as well as a happenstance run-in with local roaster Matt Toomey, helped spread the word. A board coalesced. Designs were drawn up. Pastors at the Vineyard Church, where Erica and Mark heard the initial Love146 presentation, got wind of the plans, and offered up a little-used space to the pair.

"It really was a terrifically unattractive space," says Mark, scrolling through photos of what the room once housed. Cobbling together a team of 50 volunteers -- some they knew, some they'd never met -- Erica and Mark began rehabbing the place last summer. Graphic stencils dotted the walls, and couches soon replaced the empty expanse. The team even covered the floor in artistic, mesmerizing rhombi. Soon, where once lay a bare, unassuming space now stood one of the most appealing -- both aesthetically and altruistically -- locations for Houston coffee-drinkers.

Through word of mouth and a successful social media campaign, A 2nd Cup quickly took off. While they were open only two times a week, the shop was often buzzing. The months flew by. The reception was as positive as could be expected.

"We're working with a half-dozen groups -- Children at Risk, Redeemed Ministries, Houston Rescue and Restore," says Erica, running through the list. "We couldn't do medical or child care, but we could send funds to them. We could help them the best way we could."

And they did. Nearly 12 months in, A 2nd Cup has garnered enough of a following that GOOD and TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie selected it as one of 30 national finalists for their Start Something That Matters campaign. As the only Houston representatives on the list, A 2nd Cup is the city's best bet to bring the $50,000 prize to an area that could sorely use the coffee shop's presence.

Moreover, A 2nd Cup could use the funds simply to continue. While there remain certain resources to lean on, Erica and Mark won't have much more coming in over the summer. Due to the church's recent renovations, they've had to close their original location. "They told us early that they would be renovating the space," says Erica. "May 12 was our final day there."

As it is, both Erica and Mark are spending their full days searching for a replacement location. Naturally, they'd like something permanent -- something from which they won't have to uproot again in but a matter of months.

"The dream is to have something by October, and the aggressive goal is to have something by the end of the year," says Mark. Despite a few leads, Erica says she still has no idea where they will end up. Because this new location isn't going to be solely about coffee. This is going to offer something a bit more.

"We want it to become a hub for events on trafficking in Houston," Raggett said. "There are so many things that we want it to be. We want the coffee to be there, and we want people to come for that. But we want to do as many things as we can to help fight trafficking. Especially in Houston."

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