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Monday, December 17 , 2018, 9:23 am | Light Rain Fog/Mist 56º


Group Offering Refuge from Sex Trafficking to Screen Documentary on Friday

(Exodus Cry video)

“I feel like I’m famous,” shouted the young teen, fresh from her first surfing lesson. “I’ve only seen surfing on TV! I feel important!”

Her reaction was hardly teen hyperbole; a few months earlier she’d been a victim of sex trafficking, which has a firm foothold in Santa Barbara County, across California, and throughout the nation.

A 2015 needs assessment in Santa Barbara County identified 45 confirmed, unduplicated child survivors of sex trafficking in the county between 2012 and 2014, 80 suspected (unconfirmed) child survivors of sex-trafficking and 461 children extremely vulnerable for domestic sex trafficking.

It’s estimated that, nationwide, 100,000 to 300,000 young adults are at risk to be exploited sexually, part of the 1.6 million teens who run away each year. One in three of those teens will be recruited by a pimp within 48 hours of leaving home and becoming homeless. The average age of solicitation is 12.

On Sept. 16, to increase awareness of the problem, Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, a documentary film about sex trafficking, will be shown in Santa Barbara. Benji Nolot, the film’s writer, producer and director, will also be available for questions and answers.

The event begins at 7 p.m. at First Baptist Church, 949 Veronica Springs Road in Santa Barbara.

The evening, sponsored by the Associates of the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart, will also serve to highlight a local anti-trafficking organization, Hope Refuge.

Hope Refuge is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the developmental needs of at-risk children and youth whose lives have been affected by commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

“Our overarching goal is to create a caring environment and supportive community in which trafficking survivors can heal from the trauma of abuse, abandonment and neglect,” said Bob Ryan, one of the founders of Hope Refuge.

“Our hope is to see them empowered to think forward toward a future where their dreams and unique potential can be personally realized and shared with others.”

To that end, Hope Refuge has established wellness retreats for trafficking survivors at a beautiful retreat camp. Ryan has partnered with his wife, Michelle, and Sally and Chuck Cook in an all-out effort to provide safety, healing and recovery for survivors of trafficking.

“These girls have often been coerced and subject to to others’ manipulative agendas,” Ryan said. “They have a right to be free for one weekend. Our hope is to be a caring presence in their lives.”

Recently, a group of survivors (ages 13-17) arrived at Hope Refuge for their wellness weekend to find the rooms of the retreat house filled with flowers. Their beds had personalized quilts and fresh new linens. A professional chef had volunteered to cook their meals, which were eaten with silverware and fine china. All of them were there to experience the nurture and shelter of Hope Refuge.

Their weekend agenda had been formulated by a focus group of survivors who’d met at the camp in May to explore what would most heal and nurture girls like themselves. They identified specific activities designed to begin to undo the unthinkable damage done to them.

First on the list were the beach, a surfing lesson and a barbecue. The next day, a high ropes-course zip-line adventure worked to build trust, as the girls had to lift each other up to succeed. A volunteer Pilates instructor donated her time to help the survivors develop a more integrated relationship with their bodies. Also, a therapy dog was present for the girls to bond with while enjoying time around the pool.

They also planted trees, a visible testament of their presence there, which they said they wanted to return to to see the growth. Sally Cook used this opportunity to talk about the symbolism and the hope of planting new growth in the ashes of a recent brush fire. Interspersed within these activities were quiet times for the girls to reflect.

At the farewell luncheon Sunday, survivors and staff reflected on what the weekend meant to them.

“This place has helped me let go of the past and move on,” one girl said.

One of the advocates who accompanied the girls said, “You not only opened a window for the girls, you opened a door.”

The seeds for this venture were planted in 2005, when Bob Ryan and Chuck Cook met at a missionary training in Mozambique. Over the years, their lives took the parallel paths of helping at-risk youth.

Ryan spent 14 years as director of a San Marcos camp, working with foster children and foster teens.

Chuck Cook and his wife, Sally, were involved with Iris Global, helping to create a sponsorship program for orphans in Africa. Chuck also worked with Lift Up America, a program for at-risk youth.

Several years ago, all of them had their eyes opened to the prevalence of sex trafficking in America, largely by a friend, Kim Biddle, executive director of Saving Innocence, which serves as first responders to minor children who have been trafficked in Los Angeles. As a Hope Refuge board member, Biddle continues to inspire and encourage them to serve the needs of this growing population.

Hope Refuge was officially incorporated in 2013 when the group began to partner with a Presbyterian camp in the area to offer short-term retreats for those in need. The local ranch, set among rolling hills with ocean views, provides an ideal location for rest and recovery. Much work has gone into revitalizing and refurbishing the facilities.

One of their first challenges was to convince the public that sex trafficking was operating locally. Because Santa Barbara is centrally located between the three most common sites for trafficking — San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco — sex trafficking is on the rise in the area. Within the last month, police have busted a trafficking ring in Ventura.

Hope Refuge networks with the RISE program of the Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness Department and the county Human Trafficking Task Force, as well as with other anti-trafficking organizations. Their desire is to collaborate with others to address this complex issue, seeking solutions for supporting the needs of survivors.

“We want the girls to get out of the city to experience a new environment,” Ryan said. “We want them to have times of wholesome excitement and times of nurturing that are interconnected.”

Among Hope Refuge’s continuing challenges are efforts to increase awareness, create collaborative partnership, and identify more resources. They say they feel grateful to live and serve in Santa Barbara, a welcoming and generous community.

Click here for more information about Hope Refuge. Click here to make an online donation.


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