To a group of children in Ghana, Rachel Johnson is known as "Ma Rachel."
The children were trafficked into a brutal fishing trade on Lake Volta in the West African country. They worked 14 to 16 hours a day in what Johnson, a Wheaton native, calls dangerous conditions.
If you goIf you go
What: Garage sale fundraiser for Touch a Life
Why: Touch a Life rescues children sold into the fishing trade in Ghana
When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23
Where: 10 Muirfield Circle, Wheaton
Most had parasites. Some had hernias. Their bosses beat them if they didn't comply with their demands, Johnson said.
Some of the children are forced into the trade by their own parents, lured by the promise of a few dollars' worth of compensation in an area crippled by poverty.
Johnson, a graduate of Wheaton Warrenville South High School and Pepperdine University, is director of project development for the Touch a Life Foundation, a Dallas-based nonprofit organization aimed at rescuing and providing long-term care for trafficked children in Ghana, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Her mom, Beth, is hosting a garage sale fundraiser for Touch a Life Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23, at 10 Muirfield Circle, Wheaton.
Johnson coordinates fundraising for the foundation, leads group trips to Ghana and develops other giving and volunteer programs. And she's witnessed firsthand the negotiations that free children from the trade.
"We like to say we're a special-forces unit vs. an army," Johnson, 26, said. "We're tackling a very specific niche and issue. I just feel blessed that each day I get to go to work and be inspired."
As part of the negotiations with bosses, a Ghanaian team uses conversation-based strategies, Johnson said. The team approaches talks from emotional, legal and economic perspectives.
"Economically, it's not beneficial even though you aren't paying wages like you would an adult," Johnson said. "It's still not benefiting you to have a 4-year-old bailing water out of a leaky canoe."
It's not a raid, Johnson said, it's a lengthy process.
"We know as Westerners we can help facilitate this change, but we cannot be the change," Johnson said. "It has to come from within Ghana organically."
Some of the rescued children have expressed interest in becoming abolitionists and can give a tangible example of their transformation to bosses, Johnson said.
When children are rescued, the foundation provides medical treatment and focuses on customized care plans specific for each child, Johnson said.
The foundation is currently accepting donations for a project billed as the first long-term care facility in Ghana for trafficked children. The project is expected to cost $800,000.
Johnson first went to Ghana on a service trip in August 2008. She had always wanted to travel to Africa, but a speech by the foundation's co-founder at Pepperdine during her senior year was the catalyst for the trip.
How can one speech trigger traveling across the globe?
Johnson said one part particularly struck her: When Pam Cope, who founded Touch a Life with her husband, Randy, explained how the foundation memorialized their son, Jantsen, who unexpectedly died of an undiagnosed heart defect at age 15.
"I think the piece of the story is so interesting about how the Copes found recovery from their grief through serving others," Johnson said.
Since then, Johnson has traveled to Ghana eight times.
"The first time we set out to go there it was like, 'I can't wait to implement change and be of help,'" Johnson said. "But we realized when we got there, those kids teach us so much more than we could ever teach them."
Johnson's mom, Beth, has joined her daughter on trips to Ghana, most recently in July 2011. Beth praised the art, vocational and educational programs that are a part of the foundation's care for children after their rescue.
"She really opened my eyes to the world, I have to say," Beth Johnson said of her daughter. "Living in a nice, little community of Wheaton, it's hard to imagine what's happening around the world to these vulnerable, precious children who deserve every opportunity."
Last year, the garage sale raised $3,600 for Touch a Life, Beth Johnson said. Almost a dozen local families donated items for sale. The money raised help sponsor four rescued children in Ghana, Beth said.
This year, the garage sale will include a bake sale, and Beth will showcase the letters and photos she's received from the children who range in age from 9 to 12.
Johnson said the children have shaped more than just her career.
"It's taught me about gratitude," she said. "These children with so little, who were sold for pennies, have more joy and gratitude and grace than I've ever shown."
The garage sale runs 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23. For information about the Touch a Life Foundation, visit touchalifekids.org.