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Manasseh Project

Out of the Darkness and Into the Light

I took this picture right after Heather collected our first donation.
It was a beautiful moment.

 This is my friend Heather. We met in second grade. She has been a force of grace, comfort, stability, and love in my life ever since. Several years ago she invited me to her house for a Silpada jewelry party. She said the proceeds of her sales were going to The A21 Campaign, an organization she had heard about at her church. She told me that the campaign's mission was to help stop human trafficking. You know, human trafficking? It is one of those problems that belongs to OTHER people.

Since I love sparkly things and I love Heather, and it sounded like a good cause, I attended her party. I bought jewelry. She donated the proceeds of the party. She called us abolitionists.

Not long after that I happened to turn on the TV in the middle of a show about human trafficking. The survivor telling her story looked like any other woman I saw every day in the carpool lane at my child's school. Hmmm...

About a year ago, another woman I love and admire started talking about her work with the Full Circle Exchange. She is co-founder of the Brave Girls Club and someone I feel blessed to call my friend, Melody Ross. I took note. It didn’t seem like a coincidence that human trafficking kept showing up in front of me. I was being asked to do something about it. 

Melody wrote about partnering up with the Full Circle Exchange for a Truth Card Project on her blog. Recipients of the truth cards would be victims of human trafficking. I made truth cards and I sent them to the Brave Girls. Melody went to Manila, Philippines to work with a special group of victims of human trafficking and took the truth cards with her. She handed them out to the girls she worked with and girls on the street. They are girls. Very young girls. She wrote about it here. I saw Melody in March and she shared some of her story - some of what she witnessed in Manila.

As I allowed myself to be broken open by the stories of these girls and the people who perpetuate their pain and suffering, I began to see myself in their stories...

Last Thursday I moved a little further beyond making donations and truth cards. Heather and I had a benefit for the Manasseh Project in west Michigan. The Manasseh Project works to end sexual exploitation of young men and women in Michigan. Heather has envisioned us doing something like this for a while now and we finally pulled it off. We invited some of our friends (local artists and business women) to sell their goods and donate some of their proceeds to Manasseh. We pulled it together pretty quickly. It was a beautiful event - from the planning where we recruited our friend Sherry to help us - to the end of the night when Sherry's daughter handed me a box of money she had collected. She and her brother made bracelets on their Rainbow Loom and sold them at the benefit. 

Sherry and her daughter Amelia

We made truth cards for the girls at Manasseh. They need to know they have support, but they need bras and underwear the most. It's cold in Michigan in the winter. They will need coats too.

This is Alexa and the beautiful truth card she made - it gives me chills
just thinking about how excited she was when she made it,
and the love that will come through to the girl who receives it.
There were rooms full of women. There were friends with friends, sisters with sisters, and moms with daughters. There were moms with sons too. And a couple wives with husbands.

Pam and Jordan, inspiring mother and daughter, shopping
Missy and Shelli, two sweet sister

I felt a strong sense of community, even though not everyone knew each other. It felt like we were part of something bigger than ourselves, perhaps bigger than we could even imagine. A movement maybe...

I am so grateful for everyone who participated by making beautiful things, selling beautiful things, donating beautiful things, and shopping. Even the people who couldn’t make it sent sweet notes and I could feel them all with us in spirit. People are kind. People want to take care of each other. All we really want is to love and be loved. It is very simple. My heart feels so full when I think about the beauty that shone through the night.

On Friday, the morning after the benefit, it occurred to me that it takes a certain kind of bravery to show up for an event like ours. Human trafficking isn't something anyone wants to think about. It scares people. The whole operation is absolutely inconceivable. Many of us would prefer to believe that this is not our issue or our problem to solve, but theirs. Not a lot of people want to talk about it and so it takes courage to step out into the light and do anything to take a stand against it.

Friday morning Heather posted on our event page on Facebook. She said, "...Sometimes it is tough to be really honest about what human trafficking looks like. It has so often been relegated to 'those type of people'. Prostitutes or strip club girls - whatever. But the reality is much darker than that. And does not cover the whole issue anyhow. No little girl grows up dreaming of having her body used so that someone else can make money. No little girl wakes up one day and hopes that she will be forced to have sex with men or boys she does not know. No woman comes to the US looking to make money for their family back home and hoping that to do it she will have to dance naked and service multiple men in one night. It does not matter what circumstance a girl comes out of - this just was never planted in her heart. Plain and simple. And once a girl is trapped in that - someone must save her. Period. I think that is what we are doing. We, as a group of women who have hearts for those without voices. We, as a community that knows the least among us can be the greatest. We, as a bunch of sisters really - who deep down realize that a human being is the greatest thing we can invest in.”

It is hardly ever easy to face the truth. While I worry about what other people think when they hear about human trafficking - about what they think of the victims and whether or not they believe this is an issue that impacts them - I worry most about what the girls think about themselves. I worry that they blame themselves. I worry that they hate themselves. I worry that they will never forgive themselves. I worry that they will always believe the lies they are told - the lies that might forever keep them enslaved even if they are fortunate enough to be in the ONE PERCENT of victims freed from slavery. 

I worry because in some small way I can see myself in these girls. I was raped the summer after I graduated from high school. It took years for me to even be able to call it what it was. It took many more years to let go of the shame I carried with me since the night it happened. We're talking 20 years. 

For 20 years I believed the lies I had heard about the kinds of girls who get raped. I blamed myself for what happened to me and I was so ashamed of myself for allowing it to happen. 

It took years of opening to little bits of truth I learned as a volunteer for a shelter for victims of domestic violence - in receiving my own training and in training others, it took hearing other women's stories, and slowly sharing mine in tiny pieces and sometimes even in code, it took blurting it out, and holding it in. It took my dad dying and me realizing that life is too short to live under a cloak of shame. It took therapy and life coaching and finally it took me saying to myself: "That was a bad thing that happened to you, Anna. You didn't deserve it. It wasn't your fault." It took repeating that statement. Again and again. And then, finally it took me believing it - that a bad thing happened to me and it wasn't my fault. That I didn't deserve it.

In just about every single circle of women I find myself in, at some point, one of us shares that she was abused, molested, raped... Sometimes it is a secret she has been holding for years. Sometimes even though it has been years since it happened, she hasn't even begun to heal. Sometimes it is a story she shares because she knows there is someone out there struggling with the awful feelings she felt and she wants that person to know that they are not alone.

Not discussing things doesn't stop them from happening. 

In fact, sharing our difficult stories – bringing them out of the darkness and into the light – disempowers the stories and liberates us and makes space for us to help others do the same.

The truth is not that complicated. No matter what you want to believe about victims of human trafficking, or even rape or abuse or molestation - what is happening to the victims of these nightmares is not their fault. No matter how badly you don't want to hear about human trafficking or talk about it or deal with it, it is STILL HAPPENING. 

It happens everywhere. All over the United States. There are sex slaves in the United States of America -- the land of the FREE and the brave. It happens all over the world. 

The victims are just like us - just like our children, our nieces and nephews, and our neighbors. They are not OTHER PEOPLE. They are us. They are you and me. They are our sisters and brothers. 

They need us. They need to know they are not alone. They need their sisters and brothers to show up for them, to speak up for them, to stand up for them, and eventually, to free them.

Join us in taking a stand against this horror. Heather and I are continuing our fundraising efforts for the next few days. You can donate to the Manasseh Project online using this link: Home for the Holidays

Thank you.