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She was trafficked as a child. Now this survivor fights back through coffee

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Tina Kadolph is on a mission to fight human trafficking -- one cup of coffee at a time.

Posted: Jul 11, 2019 4:50 PM
Updated: Jul 11, 2019 4:50 PM

From the drinks to the décor, everything about Palate Coffee Brewery is warm -- and not just because it's located in sunny central Florida. Some 1,200 miles south of Boston, it's reminiscent of a famous hangout where everyone knows your name.

"I always say it's like 'Cheers,'" says Palate co-founder and co-owner Tina Kadolph. "It's a place where people can go and feel safe and they're cared about."

Kadolph, who describes herself as a "survivor warrior of child sex trafficking," dreamed up Palate as a café with a mission. All the baristas are volunteers, and all profits -- even tips -- go to fight human trafficking and help survivors.

"The person who buys our coffee is not just buying a cup of coffee," Kadolph explains. "They're making a community difference, a global difference, an individual difference, in lives."

For Kadolph, it's the kind of support she wished for growing up.

"I have always longed to help other people because of my childhood. I didn't have help," she adds. "I know what it feels like to have nothing and to have no hope."

A personal mission

Kadolph said she was born to a prostitute in northern California. She recalled being forced into sex work as a child, which lasted into her teens.

"My earliest memory is at the age of four, remembering that my mom left me with the first man that I can remember," she recalls. "I never had a safe place."

The trauma left her feeling worthless, hopeless and suicidal. When she was 14 or 15 she developed an eating disorder.

"People would ask me, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' I would think, 'I'm never gonna grow up. I'll be dead before then.' And that was really my mindset, that I would never make it to adulthood."

At age 20, after surviving years on the street and a violent first marriage, Kadolph attended a party where she met a man who offered to help her. They talked over coffee.

Earlier this year, Tina and that man, Carl Kadolph, celebrated their 35th anniversary.

The healing process

The couple eventually settled into family life, had two daughters and later adopted a son from Guyana. Kadolph tried suppressing her childhood memories, but her battle with anorexia continued into her thirties. Her weight dropped to 70 pounds.

When her girls reached roughly the same age she was when she was first exploited, it triggered a breakdown that landed her in the hospital for two months.

Therapy helped Kadolph heal.

"Once I started talking about it, and after the treatment in the hospital, I knew there was hope," she says. "And I really did feel like God had a plan for my life, and that instead of running from my past, I needed to embrace it and use it to bring hope to others. And so that's when everything really changed."

Helping a young survivor

Around 2000, Kadolph began organizing mission trips, bringing food, clothes, and kindness to different parts of the world. Her journey came full circle a decade ago when she met a 13-year-old Guyanese girl who had just escaped her trafficker. The girl told Kadolph she was sold by her mother at age six, couldn't read or write, and felt hopeless.

"She looked at me and said that she had no reason to live," Kadolph recalls. "She didn't know about my life but I sat down with her and shared what had happened."

Kadolph helped the girl enroll in reading lessons and find a secure place to stay. Today, Kadolph said, that trafficking survivor is married with children, running her own business, and "doing amazing."

Opening Palate

After meeting the trafficking survivor in South America, Kadolph began sharing her story publicly around Florida. Before a talk in West Palm Beach, she visited a local coffeehouse focused on community building.

She remembers thinking, "'how cool would it be if we could take that concept but do even more by having our profits go to fight human trafficking?'"

The Kadolphs soon found a space in downtown Sanford. With husband Carl's carpentry background, the couple built the café's interior and furniture out of leftover pallets, which hold a special significance for Tina.

"Pallets to the world are where the valuable things sit," she says. "To the world, a pallet is trash."

"As far as human trafficking victims or myself, that's what I felt -- I felt I was trash. But [...] when you take time with somebody, you can turn them into something beautiful. And I hope that's what my life portrays to others."

Raising money -- and awareness

Since opening in 2015, Kadolph says Palate has raised an estimated $42,000 worth of monetary donations and goods to fight human trafficking at home and abroad. In Guyana, they are putting the finishing touches on a remodeled safe house for rescued children that should open by the end of the month. In Florida, the money has helped pay for thousands of hygiene kits for trafficking survivors, hurricane victims, and the homeless. There's also a "life center" in the works, a residential and training facility where survivors will have a safe place to stay while they develop job skills and work with lawyers pro bono.

Kadolph has also lobbied Florida state lawmakers on legislation to fight human trafficking. She says change has been slow, but with the nation's hotel industry announcing it will train its employees to recognize warning signs, for example, things are starting to move in the right direction.

"I think our country doesn't really want to acknowledge it. It's an ugly thing," she says. "(In) everybody's community it's happening, but it's hard because we don't want to talk about it because we're the United States."

Awareness is crucial, Kadolph says, especially for parents raising kids in the digital age.

"I want people to protect their children and not ever have them live the life that I did. And it's better for us to prevent than to try to fix."

For survivors like herself, Kadolph believes that compassion is key.

"Love makes a difference," she says "We just need to show love. That's it. Period."

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