Community as Prevention
Allow me to share a story with you about a young teenage girl. We’ll call her Lexi. Kim and Julie, members of our trauma response team were together when Lexi* walked through their neighborhood. She was young, alone, and out of place. She carried nothing with her, and the women called out to her, “Are you looking for someone?” Before long, Lexi had told them about the last week, how she was staying on someone’s couch, but they locked her out of the apartment and wouldn’t let her in to get her stuff. She needed a place to charge her phone. The ladies offered to get her some food and she accepted. As you read this, alarm bells should be going off in your head. I have two teenagers myself, and they know not to accept rides from strangers, much less couches. If they were in need, they would not be wandering around an unknown neighborhood in the middle of the city. You should be asking yourself: What about this girl’s life would lead her to make these decisions? Kim and Julie had these questions, too, and it didn’t take long before they learned Lexi’s story.
With both parents incarcerated, Lexi had been placed in a group home, one away from her hometown. Something made the group home feel unsafe, and so she left, but when one leaves the only place they know in a city of this size, where should they turn for shelter? We no longer have a youth shelter in Fresno. This girl, at 17, knew that if she reached out to anyone official, they would call DSS and she would have to go back to the group home, the worst possible outcome, as far as she could imagine. Of course, we know there are worse outcomes – the risk of exploitation increases significantly when youth lack a safe place to sleep. We wanted to help Lexi* avoid these outcomes, but we first had to meet her where she currently was. Our team immediately sprang into action. We didn’t want her to go back to the couch of a virtual stranger, or to sleep on First Street like she had the night before, but our options were limited. Licensed emergency placement options will not take a minor. We couldn’t even put Lexi up in a hotel for a night because she was not 18. Resource families, even respite ones, aren’t licensed for a kid who is AWOL from DSS. But if we called DSS, she would have ran, and if she couldn’t stay connected to us, who would she be connected to?
I took to Facebook to ask for help, posting some vague information about a teen who needed a couple of nights to sleep, food, and re-engage her frontal lobe so she could make good decisions. I quickly began receiving text messages, Facebook messages, and comments from so many people offering a place for my daughter to stay, anytime, for as long as she needed. Of course, this is who my friends would think I was asking about! I hadn’t even considered people would assume it was my child, but the rapid response was exactly what God wanted me to see. The truth is, my kids have no shortage of places to go and people looking out for them. Within minutes, my daughter who is nearly the same age as Lexi would have had multiple options. It
struck me then that this is why the Coalition exists, to leverage the capital of the community on behalf of those who haven’t found community yet.
In many ways, the Justice Coalition is a small organization. We have a tiny staff, a small annual budget, and a mostly local focus. In some of the most important ways, however, the Justice Coalition is like the objects in your rearview mirror, bigger than we appear. We have one tiny office in downtown Fresno, but our online classes give us a much larger reach, our partnerships allow us connections in many more communities, and we are both impacted by and able to influence the global conversation about human trafficking. We have only three paid staff members (for now! Growth is coming soon!), but our volunteers have always been instrumental in all of our work, from education to monthly outreach, survivor support to cyber patrols. You are our capital. You are the riches that we are honored to share with those in need. It is because of you that we have the ability to bend and flex and respond in individual ways to individual needs.
It took work, but we found a place for Lexi to stay. With food in her stomach, a solid night of rest, and a fully charged phone, Lexi was able to access the parts of her brain that no one can reach when they are in survival mode. She remembered an aunt and uncle who lived not too far away and were so happy to hear from her. Kim and Julie were able to see her off when her family came to get her.
Lexi’s story doesn’t fit neatly on a sticker or a social media post, and helping individuals is simply not an efficient task. It’s difficult to write a grant for this kind of activity, hard to represent the impact of these three days in a way that accounts for every dollar and every hour spent. The fact of the matter is that the work of preventing trafficking is not efficient and not easily reportable, yet it is immensely valuable. Whatever it costs to walk with Lexi for three days, I promise is worth avoiding the years of healing and support required for those who are exploited, and it is only possible because of private donations from people like you.
Will you help us find and support the next Lexi?