With the world focused more than ever on the bottom line, it’s hard to imagine a different business model. But one store downtown is focused on much more than that.
War Chest Boutique’s purpose is to provide at-risk women a place to sell their handmade gifts.
Two locations are in Michigan and one in Naperville at 4 E. Jefferson Ave., which opened in 2011. Ashley Pitariu manages the local store and offers a sincere pledge about her mission.
“This is more than just about selling — it’s about lifting lives, and it’s a privilege,” says the 29-year-old resident of Glen Ellyn, who grew up in nearby Winfield. “A lot of these women around the world that make things for us were victims of trafficking, who were wooed by pimps while others are runaways and minors. Many women face risk issues today as a result of poverty, rape and domestic violence.”
The War Chest effort is worldwide, with partnerships in more than 40 countries. Pitariu said some of the top-selling items include scarves, pearl jewelry, glass ornaments, and a line of bath products all made by women in a variety of countries. A total of 90 percent of the profits from the store go back into the program.
“We also have partnerships with some smaller organizations to help them sell their merchandise as well,” Pitariu said. “We pay safe houses for the items we carry, and we have designers that come in and show women how to make other things. Some of the colors used in India, for example, might not be as popular here, and we try to have things made that reflect what’s in season at the moment.”
Pitariu said she attended college at Roosevelt University here in Chicago and earned a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and tourism management. She said that “tourism is vital to the economy,” and that while working in hotels in college, she “learned about the human trafficking that was going on.”
“It’s different here in the United States in that young women aren’t kidnapped out of hotels, but there would be young girls working that would be set up by boyfriends or pimps and then ‘sold,’ and upper management didn’t realize it was happening or just turned their heads,” she said. “I was shocked by it, and when I finished my degree, I didn’t do anything with the travel or the tourism business. I went to work right away for a nonprofit.”
Pitariu said she spent four years working in Chicago for the organization Girls in the Game, where young girls are provided sports and fitness opportunities as well as health and nutrition education.
“After that, I took a break and got married, and then about a year later, I was a restaurant manager before I came to work here at the War Chest in 2011,” she said.
Pitariu said customers who come into her store “are curious about the kind of things women at risk make” and that some might be shocked at the value of some of the handmade artifacts.
“We had a single-strand pearl necklace that was sold in one of our Michigan stores for $78, and it was appraised at $1,000,” she said. “Most of the things we carry sell for somewhere between $15 and $40. I think it helps to know that when people buy something here, they are getting a good value as well as helping someone else.”
Sarah Frank, of Naperville, has worked side by side with Pitariu for the past year and a half, and said her boss balances the tightrope of having to sell merchandise while being a spokesperson for the mission.
“I personally was attracted to the mission myself and the fact that when you make a purchase — it makes a difference,” she said. “Ashley has a compassionate heart, and her goal is to educate people about the cause, and she cares more about that than making a sale. It’s kind of a slippery slope, but by educating people, it creates a spark that can change the world around us.”
Pitariu continues to take pride in what she does and says that “it is an honor on behalf of these women to present them with dignity and showcase their work lovingly.”
“I like to say this is a way these women are piecing their life together bead by bead, and I hope people wear with pride the work of these women from across the ocean,” she said.