By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Photo | COURTESY LOYOLA UNIVERSITY’S WOLFPACK FOR LIFE
When Alex Christian Lucas learned that Free Indeed, a New Orleans-area safe house for girls victimized by human sex trafficking, was in danger of closing, he and his fellow members of Loyola University’s “Wolfpack for Life” pro-life group hit the ground running.
In a matter of weeks, through a variety of creative personal and social media appeals, the group had raised $7,400 for the 10-bed residence. In its five years of existence, Free Indeed has provided faith-based restoration and rehabilitation to sexually exploited girls between the ages of 12 and 17.
“I immediately knew in my heart we needed to do something,” said Lucas, a 2016 graduate of Brother Martin High and a Loyola senior majoring in vocal performance. “I would rather try and fail to keep it open than not try at all and let it close.”
Lucas, who had become aware of Free Indeed’s ministry through his membership in the Archdiocesan Human Trafficking Committee, said people who are trafficked are taken by force, fraud and coercion. He recalled learning how one pimp showed his victim a garbage bag with the body parts of a friend and told her: “See what happens to those who leave?”
“I can’t fathom how people can hear about this and not help in some way,” said Lucas, vice president of the 20-member Wolfpack for Life. “Sexual assault is so prominent, and this is a step further than sexual assault – this is sexual trafficking; this is modern-day slavery.”
Went out to parishes
After being alerted by the Respect Life Office that Free Indeed was seeking private funding to stay open, the Loyola students began calling their friends, family and contacts at their respective church parishes. They asked pastors to announce the need during Masses, set up an information table in church or encourage their parish’s respect-life ministry to take up the cause.
Lucas spoke at a weekend’s worth of Masses at Holy Name of Jesus Parish and collected more than $2,600 alone.
The Loyola students launched a fundraising page on Facebook and created a two-minute video, enhanced with music and graphics by the New Wave Feminists, a national pro-life organization.
Wherever possible, PayPal links were given so the money could get to Free Indeed quickly and also encourage supporters to commit to recurring donations.
Demands holistic approach
Free Indeed is the only safe house in the metro New Orleans area – and one of only two in the state – that provides the full array of rehabilitative and residential services exclusively to girls who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic child sexual trafficking, said Beth Salcedo, Free Indeed’s executive director and founder.
“Most of our girls come from Louisiana, but we do take them from other states,” said Salcedo, noting that more than 120 girls have benefited from Free Indeed’s holistic, faith-based approach to helping girls who have been traumatized by sex traffickers.
Helping victims recover from their trauma is intense and costly but rewarding, requiring individual therapy three times a week, daily group therapy and maintaining a strong support system for each girl as she works toward relocating to a residence away from her traffickers – a group that can often include her own parents, as well as gang members who prey on the young and weak.
Home Indeed’s direct care staff of 15 women take on the role of mother, and the girls receive classes in conflict resolution, anger management, social skills, job skills, money management and independent living skills.
“They learn to cook their own meals and clean up afterward,” Salcedo said.
For the past five years, the state-funded facility has operated under the umbrella group of the Louisiana Coalition against Human Trafficking, a 501-c3 nonprofit, and received referrals from Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services, law enforcement, the juvenile court system, family members and the general community.
But in early August, Salcedo requested a temporary cessation of Free Indeed’s license from the Louisiana Department of Health so that its staff could seek private sources of funding to make their intensive model of care more sustainable. Residents’ typical length of stay is four to six months.
“I have several girls who have gone back home or are back in school and living a normal life,” Salcedo said.
One former resident, who was sexually used and sold as part of a gang initiation, stayed at Free Indeed for eight months but became very depressed and so was sent to a psychiatric hospital because of suicidal ideation. Salcedo recently received a call from the girl, now 15, who is enrolled in school and wants to help others.
Another of Salcedo’s former residents has found safe haven with her grandmother in Atlanta.
“She’s involved in her own advocacy work rescuing girls through her church,” Salcedo said. “She’s a leader in her community, helping girls on the street.”
Archdiocese takes on issue
Debbie Shinskie, director of the archdiocese’s Respect Life Office, said helping individuals escape the snares of human trafficking is one of the concerns of respect-life ministry, which promotes the dignity and protection of all human life from conception to natural death and is engaged in issues ranging from abortion to the death penalty to the treatment of the elderly and disabled.
In early 2016, Shinskie’s office formed a committee of about 20 volunteers, including Lucas, to build a stronger Catholic response to the evil of human trafficking, which is especially prevalent in the I-10 and I-12 corridors of southeast Louisiana. The committee raises awareness of the mostly hidden problem by speaking to parish and community groups, mounting a biennial symposium on human trafficking and holding annual days of prayer and social media silence every February.
The committee also does advocacy work in the public policy realm and coordinates a street ministry aimed at helping trafficking victims find emergency assistance.
Shinskie said those who feel called to help in this highly specialized area of ministry can contact her office for information on how to assist Free Indeed and three other agencies her office partners with: Baptist Friendship House, a New Orleans women’s shelter offering transitional housing for trafficking victims and their children; SpeakHope, a pregnancy help center in Slidell; and Unashamed Love, which operates a street ministry.
A worthwhile endeavor
Meanwhile, Lucas said Wolfpack for Life will continue to shine light on the issue of human trafficking.
“We focus on all of the respect-life issues – human trafficking, the death penalty, disability rights, the unborn. We do events (promoting) adoption,” Lucas said.
“I dream of a world where sexual assault does not exist. I dream of a world where we don’t have to raise money to support underage girls who have survived serial rape,” Lucas said. “Unfortunately, in the era of #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffery Epstein, this is a reality. I refuse to let sexual assaulters get away with their actions and leave the women who survive to pay for the consequences themselves.”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.