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Feature: Laughing Out Loud

Feature: Laughing Out Loud

Toledo First members learned there was a heinous crime happening in their backyard and decided to take action—one joke at a time

By Tamaria L. Kulemeka

Ron Szczechowski frequently dabbed the corners of his eyes. He also couldn’t help occasionally flailing his arms and pounding the armrest of his seat in the fifth row of the University of Toledo’s Nitschke Auditorium. And, he wasn’t alone.

Szczechowski, a long-time member of Ohio Conference’s Toledo First church in Toledo, and hundreds of other attendees delighted in the antics of comedians Daren Streblow, Bob Stromberg and Carlos Oscar at the third annual Free to Laugh: Laugh to Free Comedy Show, which took place in October.

SONY DSC Comedians

Against the backdrop of an urban city scene—with a makeshift brick wall and contents from a toppled trash can strewn on the stage—the show tickled funny bones of all ages. But, this motley crew wasn’t there just for the fun; they were also raising money to help rehabilitate adolescent girls who have been forever affected by sexual slavery.

While human trafficking is no laughing matter, Szczechowski, his wife, Carla, and other Toledo First members wholeheartedly endorse the comedy show.
It heightens awareness of one of the many projects the church believes they are commissioned to respond to.

Mike Fortune, Toledo First’s pastor, explains, “We became aware that Toledo is the fourth most human trafficked city in America and number-one per capita,” coming behind Las Vegas, Miami and Portland. “We believe it is immoral for Christians not to do something to combat this heinous crime.”

The church, along with its nonprofit arm Haven of Hope and other community organizations, began sponsoring the Free to Laugh show three years ago. Proceeds go to The Daughter Project, a Toledo-based organization that runs Ohio’s only licensed recovery home for adolescent human trafficking victims.

December2014VisitorCover_400pxRead more articles from the December issue

December Feature: Laughing Out Loud
The Truth About 5 Human Trafficking Myths
Underscore: Have Adventist Vegetarians Turned Into Carbotarians?
Making a Better Bread
December Sunset Calendar
Read the December Bulletin Board


Making “Home” Safe Again

Jeff Wilbarger, founder and director of The Daughter Project, adds that the FBI and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children cite Toledo as a top U.S. recruitment city for trafficking children. He says his organization works with local law enforcement agencies and Children’s Services to connect with the victims, ages 13 to 15, after they have been rescued.

“The girls generally come from horrific situations where they are living in homes where they are suffering physical and sexual abuse,” Wilbarger reports. “In our recovery home, they are safe, loved and cared for.”

Laugh to Free Comedians Toledo First Church members helped out in every area of the event.

All Free to Laugh ticket proceeds, including the $25,000 raised at this year’s laugh-your-heart-out fundraiser, support the care and needs of the girls living full time at The Daughter Project’s recovery center called Hope’s House. To date the home has helped eight girls transition into a “normal” life. The victims, cared for around the clock by “house moms,” typically stay for one year before returning to their own homes or going into foster care.

Human trafficking statistics, along with other details about its close-to-home impact, stunned Toledo First members when Wilbarger spoke at the church a few years ago. The church felt compelled to respond, says Carla Szczechowski, who helps run Haven of Hope and has scurried to and fro behind the scenes helping organize each Free to Laugh event.

“Our congregation was so touched by [Wilbarger’s] testimony that many of us wanted to get involved,” Szczechowski says. “We saw it as an opportunity to minister to a huge need in our local community. Human trafficking … is a disgusting crime that targets young girls [who], in many cases, are runaways that are easy prey. They are gullible and vulnerable.”

Tragedy Turned Victory

At least one Toledo First member has experienced firsthand the ills of human trafficking.

Sherry* had a teenage daughter who was going through a rebellious period. The adolescent and a friend decided to skip school one day and hitch a ride to California. Unfortunately, the truck driver who picked them up drugged them, then headed toward New England, where the family believes they would have been shipped off.

Sherry says it was two weeks before she heard from the girls! When the driver stopped at a truck rest stop 18 hours away and the girls asked to use the restroom, they finally gained access to a payphone inside a stall. Ecstatic to hear from her daughter, Sherry immediately contacted local law enforcement, which then contacted authorities nearest the rest stop. Sherry says she stayed on the phone with her daughter until authorities verified she was in safe hands.

Not surprisingly, it still unnerves Sherry when she thinks about the ordeal and what could have happened. She’s also thankful the experience directed her daughter, now 37, toward a “strong walk with the Lord,” she says.

The fact that one of their own members has been personally affected by sex trafficking only strengthens Toledo First church’s resolve to help organizations,
such as The Daughter Project. Fortune says it makes their involvement more personal—and more painful.

“Sadly, the trafficking of humans affects us all. Modern slavery not only ruins lives and wrecks families, it impacts the food we eat, clothes we buy and electronics we love,” Fortune notes, referring to all forms of the slave trade (see the sidebar). He adds, “But, even if only one of us were affected, shouldn’t we still care and do something about it? 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it’” (NIV).

Investing in the Future

Learning about the unfortunate plight of these young women and girls is what encouraged Wilbarger to step out in faith and start The Daughter Project. He says he used to think human trafficking was just a problem in countries like India and Thailand. It was not until his son-in-law asked him to read a book about it that he realized it was happening right in his backyard—affecting 1 million kids each year.


“What people are shocked by is that it is going on in places you wouldn’t expect,” Wilbarger shares, noting farming communities like Pemberville, Ohio, and Maumee, a Toledo suburb.

Funds raised from events like the Free to Laugh show are the lifeline for operating Hope’s House and helping victims get back on their feet. The Daughter Project uses the money to buy the young tenants food, clothing, medical services and recreational opportunities. It also pays the salaries of the house moms who run it.

Wilbarger notes, however, that the comedy show would not be possible without organizations’ support. Before any tickets are ever sold, multiple sponsors, including the Toledo First church and Haven of Hope, foot the bill to make it happen. As a result, 100 percent of ticket sales are dedicated to helping the recovery center’s young “patients.”

Fortune says the church donates about $1,000 annually to purchase 50 tickets, which they then give away to members and the community leading up to the big night of the show. But, the church’s financial support extends far beyond what’s in the church’s coffers.

“Our church volunteers its time, talent and treasure to help plan the event. We provide volunteer labor to staff the parking lots [and] run the tech and cameras,” Pastor Fortune says.

Making Over Lives

Helping fund Hope’s House is one of many labors of love in which Toledo First church is involved. After receiving a $27,000 gift from a local financial company, plus some funds from the Ohio Conference and church members, Toledo First began Haven of Hope. That was six years ago, and the church has done about 20 projects since then. Its mission: “making over the lives of families one at a time in northwest Ohio.”

“We believe our mission is to show people that God loves them like crazy by reaching Toledo with hope and wholeness,” Pastor Fortune says. “Ever since Genesis 3:15, God has been rescuing His kids. We are trying to do the same thing in the 21st century.”

Haven of Hope has executed makeover and rehab projects, including “putting the finishing touches” on Hope’s House after it was built in 2012. In addition, the organization provides funds to remove lead paint, poor sewer lines, and old furnaces from peoples’ homes. They have also redone rooms at the Aurora House, a rehabilitation home for women in downtown Toledo. Around Valentine’s Day, the organization hosts a sacred concert, and offerings from the event have helped Haven of Hope give back to its community.

“We provide hope and empower the community by making living space more livable,” Fortune explains.

One person who will not forget the church’s generosity is Toledo resident Cheryl Layman. Had it not been for Haven of Hope, Layman believes the repairs completed on her home—which included painting her living room and bathroom and installing “much needed” carpet and a new bathroom floor—would have never happened.

“Haven of Hope was a great help to me,” Layman says. “My aching body was keeping me from doing anything that required climbing a ladder. Haven of Hope raised my crooked steps and some of the sidewalk. This helped my body feel better.”

In addition to helping the community, the church also gives back to its own. Fortune says church members once helped a member who had struggled to maneuver around her living space because it was not wheelchair accessible. Haven of Hope and church members made repairs in the bedroom, kitchen and living room area, and widened doorways, easing her burdens.

An Unbreakable Bond

The desire to respond to the community’s needs is what ignited the partnership between the Toledo First church, Haven of Hope and The Daughter Project. And, Wilbarger values the bond they’ve forged. Without such partnerships, he recognizes that Free to Laugh Toledo would not have taken on a life of its own—transforming and impacting lives in northwest Ohio.

“This event, like so many of the things we do at The Daughter Project, depends upon the generosity of the volunteers,” Wilbarger says. “Without Pastor Mike and our sisters and brothers at First church, the Free to Laugh event would not take place until we found new people to do everything.”

Tamaria Kulemeka is a member of Allegheny West Conference’s Hilltop Community Worship Center in Columbus, Ohio.

*Sherry is a pseudonym


It certainly is not a laughimg matter; this business of slavery of any person. Certainly a good cause to raise funds.
How can our special SDA knowledge of the Bible be brought to bear upon this issue? I suggest instead to use I Timothy 1: 9, 10 which points out how God's Ten Commandments was designed to help. Instead of laughter; why not show to the city how the Ten Commandments can uplift these areas of the city where they are needed? This may not be so popular with the public and raise lots of funds; but the long term effects of raising the morals in these areas through the Bible will last into eternity.

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