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Andrew Van Asselt uses fashion to fight against human trafficking

A little girl’s rough hands slowly linked with his. He froze. Her touch startled him, woke him and opened his eyes. He stood there still, too scared to glance down at her. Bright red and green lights flash obnoxiously. The smell of old wet trash is in the air. His blurry vision finally focused. He saw the little girl’s mother slowly walk toward him.

Andrew Van Asselt’s team crowded around the mother and her daughters, trying to bring them to safety from the streets. The mother paused from the conversation and looked at Van Asselt, then at her young daughter. “How much?” she asked Van Asselt.

His mind, body and heart froze with confusion. “In that instant, I felt overwhelmed with anger, sad and disgusted. I was at a complete loss of words,” Van Asselt said.

He was on his first missionary trip in Tijuana, Mexico. They started the operation in the Red Light district. At every block of Tijuana there were girls and women age 16 to 50 standing every three feet. “It was a culture shock and opened my eyes,” Van Asselt said. “I can’t believe there is a world like this.”

Human trafficking and slavery is still around. The industry of trafficking made about $3.2 billion just last year. That is more than Nike, Google and Starbucks combined. More than 17,500 men, women and children are trafficked into the United States every year, according to CNN World.

Van Asselt grew up in Eugene’s Cal Young neighborhood. He left for college at the University of Nations in Los Angeles. He worked for a missionary and trained with the Los Angeles Police Department. Besides his enthusiasm for bringing awareness to human trafficking, he discovered his love for fashion. Being a well-dressed man himself, he enjoyed his life in Los Angeles and all the fashion shows he went to.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve always loved clothes and coming up with new outfits in my head. I could make my own line. I can do it,’” he said. So he put his two passions together and built a company that will change lives. Through fashion, Van Asselt is determined to bring awareness and keep women, men and children out of human trafficking.

Van Asselt had a small idea to bring awareness in Oregon. He considered it a shot in the dark. He thought selling his own hand-made clothing, putting on fashion shows and raising money for safe houses could make a difference. It happened.

Now, a year and half later, Van Asselt is at work in his studio full of paintings donated from previous shows. Near his bed stand racks and racks of Coalition for Justice apparel. “Eugene sucks when it comes to fashion. It’s hard to start a company when fashion doesn’t exist here,” said Van Asselt said as he smooths out the wrinkles of his new jacket he is trying to sew together. The monotone noise of the sewing machine acts as background noise as Van Asselt continues to talk. “My goal is to make and start a fashion district here in Eugene.”

Ninety percent of Van Asselt’s customers are from Norway and Sweden. It all started in spring of 2010, when a friend from Norway asked him to come and sell his line of T-shirts there.

“I told them I would love to but I couldn’t. I was living on my friend’s sofa at the time. The money that I had went to buying material for my T-shirts,” Van Asselt said. He pauses from sewing before continuing his story and took a deep breath. “Then, my friend called a couple of weeks later and goes, ‘Hey, we got you a ticket to come to Norway and sell your shirts. See you soon!’ So I packed my bags and left.”

Since then, Van Asselt travels to Norway and Sweden to continue selling his line about three times a year.

“Many people have passions and dreams, but Andrew knows the importance of pursuing his and with that he can and will make a difference in this world,” said Bob De Groot, owner and founder of the company Dare to Dream. De Groot went to the same missionary school as Van Asselt.

Van Asselt’s cause is not just human trafficking. His recent line, “Dare to Dream” goes toward helping families in Kenya, Africa, and teaching them how to start and maintain a business. The end result is to have that family raise enough money to adopt a child in their community.

Van Asselt cuts a new piece of fabric for the jacket. He feeds the sewing machine more thread. “Ouch!” he says and tries to fix the needle. There were about five needles to choose from. He chooses one of the bigger needles and inserts it in the compartment of the sewing machine. The vibrating sound of the machine starts up and his hands carefully move to feed the fabric toward the needle.

Throughout his garage, there are paintings and artwork that friends have made for his line and fashion shows. One that is center of the room is the loudest of them all. It has blends of red, yellow, purple and turquoise. Together the colors intertwine and create a giant flower symbolizing unity.

The atmosphere and environment of every place Van Asselt travels to inspires the next fashion line. He wants to open up a boutique where customers don’t just shop but get educated while they are there. “No matter what, you’re going to help someone,” he said.

For every item Coalition for Justice sells, some of the money goes toward helping someone in need. Right now, 40 percent of his proceeds go to a safe house in Springfield called Hope Ranch Ministries, which provides safety and healing for the survivors of human trafficking.

“Beginning February of this year (2013) he had a fashion show bringing awareness to human trafficking at New Hope Christian College. Everything was donated to Hope Ranch,” said Diana Janz, founder of Hope Ranch. “I have never seen anybody as passionate as Andrew. He is completely immersed in what he does.”

Coalition for Justice is a one-man show. The sewing and the design, from directing and producing the shows, Van Asselt does it all. The website, the business end, the photography, it’s all him. Once Van Asselt opens his boutique in Eugene, the money will go toward a safe house for women.

“I want to teach the women who come to the safe house how to sew dresses,” Van Asselt says with excitement. “Then I want to use dresses to sell in my stores. Every dress will have a story behind it.”

The monotone noise of the sewing machine still goes on as Van Asselt talks. By now, the tone is more like a song to him. He hangs up the finished jacket on his homemade metal rack and shuffles around some fabric. “Do you think these colors go good together?” he asks, grabbing both sheets of fabric and heading back to the sewing machine. With a quick adjustment of thread, colors and needles, he smooths out the fabric and feeds the needle.

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