What comes to mind when you hear the word HOPE? In the past six years that word has taken on a new meaning for me.album

The first thing that comes to mind when I hear it today isn’t a definition, but faces. I see a mental photo album of beautiful girls and women I’ve been privileged to meet in the fight against sexual exploitation.

Some of the faces have been in the album for years, while others are relatively new. They vary in age, race, and background. Just like me and you, they all come with their individual stories; however, their stories have chapters that would read more like a horror story and keep you awake at night.

This week I’ve had the opportunity to touch base with several of the Hopes I’m privileged to serve. They’re in various stages of recovery and, unfortunately, some of them have gone back to the life.

People often ask why a girl would return to a life of sexual exploitation once she’s been rescued. The Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons states is well,

Women and girls who have worked in the sex industry usually do not share their real experiences with their families and communities, because they feel ashamed. They may also feel alienated from their families owing to the often humiliating experiences they have gone through. At the same time, the community may look down on them, considering them to be spoiled and unfit for marriage and as having a corrupting influence on other young people. Some of them may look for a way out by returning to the sex trade as sex workers or by becoming recruiters themselves.”

Not only does shame and alienation play into their return to the life, but some were taken into the sex trade at a young age and were not allowed to complete school. As a result, they have no marketable skill set to find employment which would yield a livable wage. As a result, they feel trapped and, therefore, return to the only thing they think they’re able to do.

Most victims of sexual exploitation form a trauma bond to their trafficker akin to the Stockhold Syndrome seen in victims of domestic abuse.

These are just some of the reasons we see girls return to a life of sexual exploitation. As you can see, there isn’t one simple answer to the question often asked, Why would they go back?

Thankfully, many of the Hopes in my life have overcome a great deal of their trauma and are moving forward in their healing. This week I got updates from several of my girls that are celebration worthy:

  • Hope 1: She is gainfully employed at a medical facility making a livable wage. She has moved into a new place that is close to her job and is a safe place for her to raise her daughter. She will graduate from college in the summer of 2016. She has been working so hard, overcoming obstacles all along the way, some thrown at her and some due to poor choices on her part, but she is learning how to make wise choices and she is a fabulous mama to her daughter who is under 2 years old. I am so proud of her. She’s come a long way. Just to let you know how far…. When I met her, she was bouncing in and out of the life. I’ve talked with her on the phone while she was in two different jails. She called once while traveling across state lines in a car beside her trafficker. She’s refused to go into recovery programs and has had to battle her way out of the life on her own terms, her own way. She has faithfully kept touch with me every step of the way. She is more than a survivor.
  • Hope 2: She is working in full time ministry in the fight against sexual exploitation. She has gained the support of many front line organizations, other survivors and those wanting to become part of the solution all at the expense of losing her relationship with her parents because she’s shared her story publicly. When I met her, she was in a recovery program, which she left before completing her treatment. She showed up in Atlanta with the idea of serving girls like her. What she didn’t realize is that act would trigger all kinds of trauma she hadn’t dealt with along the way. I was able to convince her to go back to her recovery program where she spent eighteen months fighting for her healing. Today, she’s realized working with survivors is something she has to hold for a while, putting some distance between her past and her present. Today, she is a voice for those caught in the life and raises awareness through speaking and blogging. I couldn’t be prouder of her.
  • Hope 3: The first time I met her, she was strung out on heroin and bouncing around more than a ping pong ball. She had a bubbly personality, which was not drug induced, and I knew would serve her well in life. It was also what made her so attractive to a trafficker. She has bounced in and out of four different recovery programs and in and out of the life, having survival sex at times. She finally made her clean break from the life over a year ago and has been working one to two jobs just to keep a roof over her head. Because livable wage jobs are hard to come by when you don’t have a set of marketable skills, she would only eat one meal a day to save money. She battles health issues that are a result of sexual exploitation. Last week she called to tell me she moved in with a family member and applied to college. I am so very proud of her. She fought and fought for her freedom. Her emotional and mental freedom has taken much longer than her physical freedom, but she refused to give up. We both had to learn that regression is a part of progression and she’s still moving forward.

There are more Hope that I serve and many more stories I could share, but today I wanted to give you a small glimpse into this proud mama bear’s heart.

Many people look at my girls – and the countless other Hopes out there, both female and male – without realizing they are only seeing a glimpse, a page in their story. Don’t make judgment calls on the glimpse you see. Realize there is so much more to the story.

Be an encourager.

Be a cheerleader.

#BetheKey to someone’s success story.

Take a stand.

Be willing to invest in the fight.

Count the cost.

It is so worth it. A life of freedom is worth it. Be the Key!