A friend invited Rita Ballenger to a presentation on human trafficking. She found the topic interesting enough. Besides, she hadn’t been retired for long and had time to spare.

 “I didn’t expect it to be life changing,” Ballenger said of the 2011 talk. “I didn’t know anything like that went on here in this country. It was shocking to me.”

She couldn’t stop thinking about the victims of human trafficking, who had been forced or coerced into prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation. Ballenger wanted to do something to help them as well as to raise awareness about human trafficking. In 2013, she found a way to do both by founding Abolition Bakery

The part-time bakery is her Side Hustle, which is connected to a larger mission. She donates a portion of the profits to organizations that support human trafficking survivors.

YouTube video

Running a business with the primary purpose of supporting a social cause makes Ballenger a social entrepreneur. She said the bakery has donated more than $20,000 so far. Donations have supported a variety of programs for survivors, including counseling and other therapeutic assistance, vocational training and safe houses.

Ballenger, who holds a professional baking certificate, runs the bakery from her home in Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood. The business only operates when orders are placed. This meant baking most days in November and December to fill holiday orders. During most months, it means a few to several days of baking.

Rita Ballenger, Abolition Bakery

Quote: “When you think of human trafficking, you think, ’What can I do?’” she said. “I can’t do anything, I’m not the FBI. I’m not a social worker. But I thought that I could do something with baking and that that money could make a difference somewhere.”

Day Job: Retired surgical technologist and community college teacher

“I love being retired,” said Ballenger. “So, I want, and I need, margin in my life. I don’t want to go out and make this a full-time job.”

She retired in 2010 from MetroHealth as a surgical technologist, where she first worked full-time and then part-time. 

“We’re the ones who pass instruments during surgery,” she said. 

The same year, she also stopped teaching in the surgical technology program at Cuyahoga Community College.  

Attention to detail 

Part-time doesn’t mean partial dedication. Take how Ballenger perfected the bakery’s popular cupcake bouquets, which resemble edible versions of floral arrangements.

“I love flowers,” she said. “I got this crazy idea in my head that I wanted to make something called a cupcake bouquet. I didn’t even know they existed.”

I believe it is dear to the heart of God to help the oppressed. When the chains of human trafficking are broken, that makes for a better society.

Rita Ballenger, Abolition Bakery

A quick YouTube search revealed that they do. She closely followed the techniques laid out in nearly every video posted on the topic. All failed. They usually looked good for a few hours before the cupcakes plopped from their “stems” onto the table. Abolition Bakery couldn’t sell those. That would be like a florist selling a bouquet that wilted a few hours later. 

Ballenger was left to figure out on her own how to make cupcake bouquets.  

“I had to come up with the right density for the frosting,” she said. “I had to come up with the right support (“stem”) so that they didn’t fall off. I had to come up with the right packaging, because they’re very top heavy. If they’re not packaged properly, they’ll just fall over. “

After two years, she got it right. Cupcake bouquets are Abolition Bakery’s speciality.

Rita Ballenger, owner of Abolition Bakery, shows off a cupcake bouquet that she made. The cupcake bouquets have become the bakery’s signature item. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

Barb West, a bakery customer for about five years, frequently buys cupcake bouquets because they are “unique and absolutely gorgeous.” She had Ballenger make a tennis-themed one to celebrate the birthday of a friend who is an avid tennis player. Ballenger made a scarlet and gray cupcake bouquet for a friend’s daughter who had been accepted into The Ohio State University. When West had friends over for lunch one Christmas season, she had Ballenger make “a big red and green centerpiece in cupcakes.”

“We ate our lunch and then I said, ‘Now, for dessert,’” West said. “The girls said, ‘Well, where is it ?’” I said, “You’re looking at it.”

What’s in a name?

People often ask Ballenger why she decided to name her business Abolition Bakery. While the definition includes the act of ending something, abolition also often evokes references to the 1800s movement to end slavery. The bakery’s logo could easily be mistaken for relating to slavery. It includes the image of a pair of disembodied hands and wrists with shackles. The  hands and wrists, shaded jet black, are breaking the chains. A partial verse of  Psalm 112:4 runs along the bottom of the image, “Light arises in the darkness…”

Ballenger said she chose this Biblical verse for a reason.

“I believe it is dear to the heart of God to help the oppressed,” she said.  “When the chains of human trafficking are broken, that makes for a better society.”

Ballenger said that neither the bakery’s name nor its logo refer to slavery. If people are confused by either, she doesn’t mind.

That’s why I chose the crazy name of Abolition Bakery,” she said,  “I wanted people to be like, ‘What the heck does Abolition Bakery mean?’  I wanted it to stop people.”

And once they stop, it is an invitation to conversation about human trafficking.

One of Abolition Bakery’s popular cupcake bouquets. It took Rita Ballenger, owner of the home-based business, two years to perfect the techniques for making cupcake bouquets.

Laura Bartchak, co-founder and director of The Harriet Tubman Movement, which Abolition Bakery has supported, works with trafficking victims. The nonprofit bears the name of the  famous abolitionist, who not only escaped slavery but led others to freedom. Bartchak said that some call human trafficking modern day slavery.

“There are pros and cons to that connotation,” she said.  “It’s obviously a sensitive subject. There are definitely similarities, but there are definitely huge differences. Slavery was something that was legal and based on race.”

Fueled by Volunteers

When orders come in, Ballenger’s spotless white and gray dining room and kitchen, with stainless steel appliances, transform into Abolition Bakery. From there, she said the bakery has filled every order from a loaf of sourdough bread for a single customer to the 1,600 cookies a local hospital ordered for National Nurses Week in 2021. It’s a volunteer-run operation from bookkeeper to graphic designer to production staff.

“Whenever I would tell people what I was doing, they would always say, ‘I want to help,’” she said. “Now, I have this volunteer army of people.”

Ballenger’s role in managing a pool of more than 50 volunteers – usually no more than 10 are in her house at once  – includes matching their interests with their skills. It also means  implementing strict quality control.

Before volunteers gather at her dining room table, which is transformed into an assembly line for mixing, decorating and packaging, they must follow the drill.  

“I have an eagle’s eye,” she said. “I’ll tell them when they come in, ‘We have to wear hats. We have to wash our hands. You can’t touch your face. You can’t lick your fingers because you’re not home baking for your family.’”

Ballenger not only instructs them in kitchen rules. She also talks to them about human trafficking as they work. She impresses upon them that trafficking may be in their midst without them knowing it.

“They call it the crime that happens in plain sight because you could see a couple with a teenage girl and they look like a normal couple,” she said. “You wouldn’t know that that girl is being trafficked. You wouldn’t know that she was being held against her will. You wouldn’t know she was afraid to break away.” 

Young people most commonly become child sex trafficking victims at age 13, the Ohio Governor’s Human Trafficking Task Force said as part of its Human Trafficking Awareness Month campaign in January.

Rita Ballenger, owner of Abolition Bakery, decorates these cupcakes so that they look like flowers. The bakery supports organizations that help human trafficking survivors. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

Bartchak of the Harriet Tubman Movement said its work includes getting victims into long-term programs that will aid them in healing, finding employment and other things often associated with mainstream life. When the nonprofit receives victims, such as those referred after sting operations, more immediate needs must be met.

“Sometimes they need safe shelter,” Bartchak said. “ Sometimes they need medical care, sometimes they need to detox, etc.”

She said the few thousand dollars Abolition Bakery has donated has most often been used for lower-cost things such as paying victim’s small fines – perhaps only $50 –  that could stand in the way of entering long-term programs. Bakery donations have also covered the cost of meals and beverages. 

“Sometimes you have to spend time in forming a relationship,”  Barchak said. “You have to say, ‘Let me take you out for coffee.’ You have to build up trust with them. We’re not the first people that have come along their path and said that we were going to help them. Others have said that they were going to help them and didn’t follow through.” 

Perfect Timing

Looking back, Ballenger can see how perfect timing led to her Side Hustle. Retirement, attending the human trafficking lecture and completing a professional baking program are paths that eventually converged, leading her to start a business with a mission. After retiring from MetroHealth and leaving Tri-C in 2010, she learned that she had amassed enough free credits to cover earning a professional baking certificate at the college.(She always loved baking–her sourdough bread was an operating room staff favorite.) She started the baking program in 2011, the same year she attended the human trafficking lecture. Ballenger both graduated and started the bakery in 2013.

If she hadn’t been retired, she might not have attended the lecture. Even if she had, she might have just written a check. Retirement and the baking certificate allowed Ballenger to find an ongoing role she could play.

“When you think of human trafficking, you think, ’What can I do?’” she said. “I can’t do anything, I’m not the FBI. I’m not a social worker. But I thought that I could do something with baking and that that money could make a difference somewhere.”

Economics Reporter (she/her)
Olivera, an award-winning journalist, covered labor, employment and workforce issues for several years at The Plain Dealer. She broke the story in 2013 of a food drive held for Walmart workers who made too little to afford Thanksgiving dinner. Olivera has received state and national awards for her coverage, including those from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW). She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Olivera believes the sweet spot of high-impact journalism is combining strong storytelling with data analysis.

Multimedia Director (he/him)
Jeff, a longtime producer and Cleveland resident, will be working to bring stories to life with videos and animation. He comes to us from Ideastream Public Media, where he oversaw on-air promotion, digital content, and design. Jeff has launched multiple digital series that have led to national distribution and five Emmys.