By Laura McKillip Wood
When people hear the word missionary, a certain stereotype leaps to mind: a khaki-wearing, Bible-carrying adventurer who leaves everything behind to teach natives about Jesus. Or something like that. What doesn’t usually come to mind is a fashion designer who creates products to be produced by women escaping human trafficking. But that is exactly what Whitney Herrod does.
Born and raised in Joplin, Missouri, Whitney knew she wanted to be a designer when she was 5 years old. Her family encouraged that dream, and eventually she graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in fashion design.
Joplin is home to an organization called Rapha House, where Whitney now works. The mission of Rapha House is “to love, rescue, and heal children who have been rescued from trafficking and sexual exploitation.” The word rapha is the Hebrew word for “healing,” which is appropriate since healing is an important goal of theirs.
As Whitney said, “Once a girl is rescued (we do not do the rescuing ourselves), she is placed in one of our safe houses where she receives counseling and legal aid, a safe place to live and sleep, three meals a day, a chance to further her education, medical and dental care and opportunities for spiritual growth.” Rapha House also offers a variety of vocational training programs, including a sewing program in Cambodia that enables young ladies to generate income for themselves without falling back into the sex trade.
In the Old Testament we read instructions to the Israelites for implementation of the Year of Jubilee, during which all captives were to be freed. The Year of Jubilee restored a healthy state to the lives of those in bondage. Similarly, Rapha House plays a part in freeing the captives by restoring a healthy life to women who have experienced only bondage and abuse.
Using Her Talent
Whitney heard plenty about Rapha House growing up. Volunteering at the organization, she realized that her passion for designing and fashion had evolved into using fashion as a means to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation. In 2012 she traveled to Cambodia for the first time and returned the following summer to complete her design internship with the Rapha House sewing program. Not long after, Rapha House offered her a job as the director of merchandise.
Whitney now oversees the entire merchandise program, which includes everything from shipping orders from the online store to traveling and speaking in the U.S. and selling merchandise at events. Whitney also travels to Cambodia two or three times a year to work with the young ladies in the sewing program and their trainers, as well as to purchase materials for new products.
Sometimes the day-to-day work here in the U.S. is challenging, but Whitney knows her part in the organization is necessary. She says the best part of her job is the time she spends with the Rapha girls. In August she met with all of the young women in the sewing program. They talked about their dreams for the future and how sewing can play a part in those dreams.
Whitney grew up in a family that believed in her and told her she could do anything she wanted in life, but she realizes most of the girls she works with did not have that type of upbringing. She loves being able to tell these young ladies who came from such hopeless situations the same message of value that her parents instilled in her. “Our girls are realizing for the first time in their lives that they are valuable and loved and capable of having a great life despite the terrible things that have happened to them.”
Talent in Action
Whitney loves that she can see how God uses any skill, interest, or hobby to serve him and other people. “Fashion is often considered a very shallow and materialistic industry . . . but I’ve chosen to use fashion differently.” She sees the value of her talent and has seen other people use their interests and hobbies to serve God as well. She has friends who restored an old truck to auction it. They donated the profits to Rapha House. Although they never left the United States, the impact of their work can be felt around the world. “God tends to use the most unconventional people and methods for his glory!”
You can visit www.raphahouse.org to learn more about this ministry or to contact Whitney.
Laura McKillip Wood formerly taught missionary children in Ukraine and now works in the academic office of Nebraska Christian College in Papillion, Nebraska. She and her husband, Andrew, have three children (lauramckillipwood.com).