Five years ago this month, a young girl from Los Angeles called me from state custody and simply asked, "Can you help me?" Four years earlier, at 13-years-old, her older sister had handed her over to a pimp. Without remorse, her sister had tried to save her own life by giving her sister's away. The young girl who had placed that call to me had been initiated into the "life" with a beating, a rape, another rape, and another. This violence stripped her of her dignity and her free will. As the pimp told her, this initiation was the way to determine her price. The barbarism was followed up with forcing just enough drugs into her system to make her think that she was a compliant participant -- not a victim of a heinous crime.
The pimp's name was branded across her chest. This meant that he owned her like one owns cattle. She was now part of his stable of girls. And so, she was readied for sale. And then, one by one, came the men who are referred to as johns, tricks, clients or dates but who in reality are rapist-criminals. The men were young enough to be college students and old enough to be her father or grandfather. No matter their age, they acted out their entitlement, privilege and their perversion upon her and other girls like her.
In short order, this young girl lost any feelings of self-worth. Also, her knowledge of right and wrong was inverted. She never knew what love, protection or worthiness felt like because someone labeled her expendable long before she was sex trafficked. The kind of violence that she endured physically never matched the level of neglect and abuse suffered by her spirit.
For years, Beautiful, as I call all the young girls who come to us for help, was robbed of her laugh, her smile, and the opportunity to play hide and seek for fun. The hide and seek she experienced was horrific and very real because while she lived in plain view, she was also invisible. Most people she encountered were unaware of what they were witnessing. And playing dress up was also not a child's game, because daily she, a child, was made to dress up to appeal to men. She was repeatedly sent to be with men who sought to cause her irrevocable harm as they methodically dismantled her innocence and dreams. As Patrick Rothfuss once said,
There are times when the mind is dealt such a blow it hides itself in insanity. There are times when reality is nothing but pain, and to escape that pain, the mind must leave reality behind.
For Beautiful, life changed after an arrest and being sent to "Camp". While she was in youth detention for the crimes committed against her, an earthly angel in the form of a probation officer noticed her and read her file. Daily, the officer encouraged Beautiful by painting her a picture of another kind of life. Beautiful began to have hope and months later, still incarcerated, she came across an online CNN story about a young woman who had been victimized in much the same manner as herself. The young woman was no longer walking in that victimization and through Circle of Friends: Living Water programs, she was thriving as a peer counselor and college student.
So Beautiful, driven by courage and the understanding that surviving wasn't the same as living, and inspired by what could be waiting for her under different circumstances, picked up the phone with her probation officer's permission, dialed my office at Circle of Friends, and in one breath shared all the experiences of life she could remember as fast as she could until I told her that it was okay to take her time -- that I wasn't going anywhere until we made sure she got what she called for.
Intuitively, I understood and related to her struggles because they had once been my reality until I, like her, had found the courage to dare hope for something more, something better. Though I had been victimized, I knew my name was not Victim. I chose not to live in a Victim state of mind. In the words of Barbara Marciniak,
"No one is ever a victim, although your conquerors would have you believe in your victimhood. How else could they conquer you?"
Somewhere inside of me I had to believe that what had been said about me being fast, a whore, a prostitute, and a wayward child was not my truth. It was also not Beautiful's truth.
I flew to Los Angeles and met with Beautiful. Two days after our meeting she was escorted by a Deputy Sheriff from California to Georgia. I met them at the airport and transported Beautiful to our safe refuge. That night for the first time in a long time, she was able to sleep and not have to worry about someone invading her body or imprisoning her mind.
Her fortitude has been tried by the memories and nightmares of the past trying hard to live in her present. She has relapsed eight times. She has run away from safety, work and from herself more times than we can count. But we have always stood in the gap for her, set obtainable boundaries and held her accountable for the life she says she wants.
It is our great hope that, along with the girls who will never enter through our doors, and for all who have called our sacred space home, she will one day fully understand the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
This year, Beautiful interviewed for and landed two job offers, one with great benefits. She was also accepted into college.
I have seen all ages come through my Circle of Friends: Living Water programs -- from little girls to young women to boys. Those who choose to utilize the mechanisms put in place are empowered. They are able to heal, to dream, to have a restored sense of personal security and safety and to achieve self-sufficiency through a mechanism that they are proud to name.
• Being truthful with ourselves. After working with Beautiful and others with similar experiences, as well as my own, it is apparent that the war we are fighting requires more than simply raising funds, providing safe refuge and addressing surface issues. We must all dive deep to address systemic issues like neglect and abuse, poverty, homelessness, juvenile incarceration for status offenses, the lack of family or other supportive community structures, and the trend to blame children for the criminal actions of adults. These root causes continue at an alarming rate and render children and youth vulnerable.
• Providing opportunity and access for a way out, a way up and meeting critical needs. We also remember that when we seek justice for these children and not our own fame at their expense, they will trust us.
• Providing safe space for silence, deep conversation and healing, a variety of non-traditional therapeutic services (equine, horticulture, art and culinary therapy), GED and vocational training for relevant and open career fields that pay a living wage and certification that can be achieved within 3, 6, or 9 months, access to quality education, transportation, childcare and healthcare services for those who want more than just to survive being a survivor of violence/sex trafficking. This is all accomplished by creating collaborative community partnerships with individuals, businesses, educational institutions, private firms, and with childcare, housing and healthcare providers. This collaborative approach doesn't just work well -- it changes lives.
Our organization offers no guarantees in life, but what we know is that Beautiful has stopped running. She knows that her standing still takes more strength and she is working at that one day at a time. She is fully aware that it is her choice how she lives in the present and plans for the future. She wonders aloud and questions the irony of the life she lives - how family, community and law enforcement want her to be accountable for her actions and anger, while those who stole her innocence, dreams, and giggles are never held accountable for their systematic sale and trauma of her body and the attempted terroristic annihilation of her spirit. Yet she stands and she strives.
Learn more about us and raise awareness by watching and sharing the CNN Special Report, Children for Sale: The Fight to End Human Trafficking with host Jada Pinkett Smith and three proud graduates of the Circle of Friends: Living Water programs. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
To assist girls and young women who survived violence, street life, and human sex trafficking with a safe space to heal from traumatic life events, pursue educational endeavors, and acquire skills to become self-sufficient. Visit www.cofcl.org to learn more.