The Ohio State University Alumni Association

A friend among friends

Working side by side with survivors, Sue Helmreich confronts the issue and implications of human trafficking.

Sue Helmreich ’77 assists human trafficking survivors through a number of volunteer endeavors. She is a 2018 recipient of The Ohio State University Alumni Association’s Robert M. Duncan Alumni Citizenship Award.

Every month, Sue Helmreich ’77 prepares food in Columbus’ Freedom a la Cart industrial kitchen alongside human trafficking survivors who are working to gain financial freedom by cooking one meal at a time.

“You don’t know who is a volunteer or who is a survivor,” she says of those who work for the box lunch and catering service that offers support and workforce training to survivors. “I mean, people are people. These people have the same goals you and I do: to be free, to work, to support themselves and to regain their dignity.”

Equipped with compassion, empathy and enthusiasm, Helmreich has proven to be a formidable foe, fighting human trafficking on multiple fronts — as a volunteer for Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition, The Salvation Army, the SOAP Project and Freedom a la Cart.

“Whenever there is a call for help, she is one of the first people to volunteer,” says Susan Trianfo, who works with volunteers and partners of Freedom a la Cart.

Trianfo easily recalled examples of how Helmreich has become a first responder of sorts, showing up to answer a need in the kitchen or putting in extra time on weekends to assist survivors. In February, a survivor wanted to travel from Columbus to Galloway, Ohio, to see her daughter’s dance recital. Helmreich provided transportation, bought flowers for the woman to give to her daughter and stayed to watch the recital.

“There aren’t too many people who will take a weekend day to do something like that,” Trianfo says, “but she sees the value in reuniting the kids with their mothers.”

Helmreich also raises awareness for the cause as a board member and secretary for the SOAP Project, which helps protect adolescents from prostitution by distributing soap with National Human Trafficking Hotline messaging to hotels and at large events.

“A lot of the young people, girls and boys, who get into prostitution are runaways or missing children,” Helmreich says. “People think some choose to be in this lifestyle, but the majority are forced, bribed or coerced.”

Her ability to see a person’s true dignity through shades of difference took root during her time at Ohio State.

The diversity she encountered on campus as a first-generation college freshman in 1959 came as a culture shock to the young woman from New Philadelphia, Ohio, where she says no one seemed especially wealthy, noticeably different or particularly poor. But her limited exposure to diversity didn’t keep her from seeing what she had in common with fellow students.

“Everybody had the same goal — to have your dreams come true, to be someone, to do something great, to be better than they had been before,” she says.

A grandmother of four, Helmreich lives in Powell, Ohio, and loves to travel with her husband, Joseph Towarnicky ’74 MS, ’79 PhD. She says she considers herself lucky to have the time and energy to pay forward in retirement.

“It’s just a wonderful feeling to come home exhausted but knowing you made a difference,” she says.