GCU volunteers helping sex-trade victims reach their dreams

Story and photos by  Laurie Merrill
GCU News Bureau

It was nearly time for class Tuesday at the Phoenix Dream Center.

Rebecca Richey, an assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University, and Carolyn Sadberry, a GCU Professional Counseling Department student, stood ready to present a lesson on organization strategies.

The class, “Finders-keepers, strategies to organize your life,” is part of a pilot program the department launched this fall called the Volunteer Clinic. Every Tuesday for eight weeks, faculty members and students teach a different skill-building session to a group of shelter residents, women who survived the sex-traffic trade.

The goal is to supply life tools to the victims while providing work experience for counseling students, said Kathy Britton, manager of the counseling program.

The class was the third in the series. The others are: “Those pesky beliefs,” ‘‘My body myself,’’ ‘‘Food for the soul,’’ ‘‘Do they like me,’’ ‘‘You don’t deserve it,’’ ‘‘Long-term damage" and “I love me.”

The pilot program will be followed with a second eight-week program starting next month with eight faculty and students volunteering their time, Britton said.

“It has been just a whirlwind,” she said. “I’m into signs from the universe, and this is definitely the universe talking.”

The clinic was prompted, in part, by the idea that with its abundant counseling and instructional resources, GCU could make a difference in the community. The University has a longstanding tradition of supporting the Dream Center.

Human trafficking and sexual exploitation have ensnared more than 27 million victims around the world, according to the Dream Center. The average age of sex-traffic victims is between 12 and 14.

“Forced into a life of drugs, prostitution and abuse, these young girls are left traumatized by their pimps with no hope of escape,” the Dream Center says on its website.

Britton put out a call for volunteers from the counseling department and the student counseling and psychology clubs. The response was swift and heart-felt, she said.

“We call the group, the ‘Mariposa Group,’ the Spanish word for butterflies,” said Britton, referring to the women attending the classes. “They are trying to metamorphosize into a new life.”

Tools for change

Some of the women who entered the classroom Sept. 8 were pregnant. Others held newborns. There were those who smiled and chatted and those who gazed expectantly at Richey and Sadberry. One thing they  have in common: All had been sex-trade victims who escaped and found shelter at the Dream Center.

A young woman in a pink dress and matching headband said she likes the classes and relates to the name of the group. GCU Today is protecting the identities of Mariposa Group members.

“I’m fascinated by the word, ‘metamorphosis’ and what it means in a young woman’s life,” she said. “I’m a little late (to embrace change), but I’m glad I’m here now.”

"This class is about both organizing your life and your belongings," Sadberry said.

One key takeaway is that organized people have more energy to perform other tasks. Searching for items or forgetting dates of events can cause stress, while knowing where things are and when things are happening helps you stay calm, Richey told the group.

“It helps me to do less, but accomplish more,” said a woman wearing a gray T-shirt. “Staying organized leaves me open to God.”

Literature handed out to the class suggests keeping to-do lists, having a place for all your things, making backups of important documents, labeling and color coding belongings and setting aside time for organization.

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” the woman in pink said. “Being organized means I’m prepared for anything that comes my way. It lets me be available for God’s will.”

Clearing the clutter to let God in was another theme in the class. A woman whose hair was swept into a high bun said that her mind was filled with disorganization before she turned it over to Jesus.

She got her life back

Using a pseudonym and speaking on condition of anonymity, “Marie” talked after class about her life before the Dream Center. The 21-year-old knows she is one of the lucky ones — she got free in April — and has peace and renewed faith at the Dream Center.

Five months ago, Marie was a sex slave in a locked Cave Creek apartment. Her first memories of abuse are from early childhood. Later, when she was 17, working two retail jobs and living with her boyfriend, Marie learned she was pregnant. Wanting a better life for her baby, she set up a formal adoption and kept the pregnancy a secret.

“No one knew,” she said. “I went through the whole thing by myself.”

Marie gave birth to a boy, put him up for adoption as planned and went back to work. By the end of the week, however, she had collapsed with eclampsia, a pregnancy-related, seizure-inducing disease.

“I woke up in the hospital four days later,” Marie said. Her mother, brother and boyfriend were at her bedside.

Her boyfriend was devastated by the adoption.

“He begged and begged me,” Marie said. “I got my son back because he begged me.”

For months she felt sick, couldn’t work and went through her savings. She and her boyfriend ended their relationship but decided to remain as roommates to care of their son. Marie needed to work and when she was approached working for an adult webcam company, she took the position, and began dating the boss. But that relationship soon soured, and Marie found herself trapped in their apartment.

God answered her prayers

Marie was depressed, in a fog, emotionally manipulated and exhausted. For two years, she was his captive.

“Finally, broken and battered, I prayed to God for a week straight. I said, ‘God, can you please get me out of this?’’’ she recalled.

She was so broken that she would obey his commands to stay in the car, or when out in public to look down. But one day, when he went inside a store by himself, Marie fled.

“I took off on foot. I used a man’s phone to call my mom. My mom called someone to pick me up,” said Marie, who was taken to the Dream Center, where her mother is residing.

Marie is working through the process to get permission to visit her son, now 3, and she is enrolling at GCU next semester. She feels hopeful, filled with God’s grace.

“I feel complete now,” Marie said. “I have gotten my life back.”

Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected].


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Bible Verse

(Job declared,) "Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul." (Job 7:11)

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