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October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month – a time when we remember and mourn the crimes committed against innocent women and children and recommit to ending these crimes. Domestic violence not only damages the physical and mental well-being of the victims, but it also hinders their ability to find stability even after they escape dangerous situations. According to the National Coalition for Domestic Violence, anywhere from one fifth to three-fifths of domestic violence victims experience job loss because of abuse, creating a cycle of poverty and dependency that only exacerbates the effects of the abuse.

This month is of particular importance to us at Wellspring Living. Our mission is to provide hope and healing to victims of human trafficking in the Atlanta area, many of whose stories start with domestic violence and abuse. Often, women and children who experience sexual or physical abuse run away from home or foster care and live on the streets. This in turn renders them vulnerable to traffickers, who take advantage of their basic human need to be loved and cared for. More than 90% of the child victims we work with come from a situation of domestic violence or abuse.

Sadly, even after the trafficking begins, victims can struggle to recognize it as such. The early experience of abuse impacts brain development, making it difficult to distinguish between a loving, nurturing relationship and a possessive, exploitative one. Forty-two percent of victims are recruited by traffickers in their social circle, whom they may know and trust. Additionally, many traffickers force victims to commit crimes like petty theft or drug abuse – crimes that, if successfully prosecuted, can permanently impair a victim’s ability to achieve any lasting financial independence. Unless a victim successfully petitions to erase crimes committed under duress, landlords, banks and employers will see the marks on their record and could refuse them a job, a loan or a lease.

The heartbreaking stories we hear daily might begin in domestic violence but, thankfully, they don’t end there. Time and time again, we’ve seen women and children who have experienced the unimaginable rise from the ashes and forge new lives for themselves. It’s a challenging mission, to say the least, but there’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing lives transformed and cycles of abuse ended.

Our approach encompasses a number of programs, each designed to equip trafficking victims to reclaim their dignity and sense of purpose. We run two residential programs for women and one for girls, all of which provide wraparound services that address a resident’s physical, financial and mental health needs. We also run two community programs, one for women and one for youth above the age of 14. The first program offers three pathways – a GED track, a Career Track and an Apprenticeship Track – each giving participants the opportunity to develop key personal and professional skills so they can thrive on their own. The second program helps students overcome traumatic experience and work towards graduation, combining academic support with food, clothing and other necessities.

We’ve seen such radical transformation through our work here in Atlanta that we’ve begun to share what we’re learning with other organizations in this space through our Wellspring Living Institute, providing them with the insights they need to more effectively serve individuals transitioning out of trafficking.

Though home is the place where many of our participants’ tragic stories began, we’re working to help women and children reclaim home as a place of healing. In an exciting expansion of our work, we’ve established a tiny house community on an acre of land where several recent graduates of our community programs live. They pay a very small amount of rent and work full-time, enabling them to save towards eventual independence. Soon, we also plan to open a receiving center where law enforcement can immediately send children from around the state who have been identified as trafficking victims. Each resident will have a room and bathroom of their own and a safe space in which to begin the process of recovery.

Additionally, our partnership with Stand Together Foundation as part of the Atlanta Cohort of the Catalyst Program has given us the opportunity to partner with other nonprofits in the city, bringing their expertise to bear on our work and vice versa. Thanks to a partnership with a fellow cohort member, for instance, we now offer art therapy to young victims, helping them to express and release the strong emotions that they might not yet have the verbal capacity to articulate. Already, our time in the Catalyst Program has strengthened our work with this unique population, and we’re looking forward to how our work with Stand Together Foundation will continue to help us deepen our impact.

In our work, we see human nature at its ugliest, but also at its most loving and resilient. Just a few days ago, we spoke to a young mom who had run away from an abusive home environment and was picked up by a trafficker at 14. By the time she came to our women’s community program, she had a young child of her own and was ready to do whatever it took to get out of her situation. Several years later, having graduated from the community program and found full-time employment, she now watches her daughter bike freely and safely around the tiny house community. Through an extraordinary act of bravery, she stopped the cycle of generational abuse and violence in its tracks – and we were privileged to bear witness to her courage and to help her along the way.

Domestic violence need not have the last word in anyone’s life. Together, we can empower women and children to lay claim to their own dignity and authority, moving beyond merely surviving to thriving.

Lee Hendrickson is the Chief Operating Officer at Wellspring Living.

Sara Beth Dean is the Communications Coordinator at Wellspring Living.

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