By Lisa Goldblatt Grace, LICSW, MPH, Director and Co-Founder, My Life My Choice
Two weeks ago, I visited Tanya at her new home: her college dorm. When we first met Tanya, she was fourteen years old. She had been commercially sexually exploited by men who believed that she was a commodity that one could use and throw away. Her community saw her as a "bad kid". Tanya felt judged and worthless. When Tanya met her Survivor Mentor, Ann, and wasn't convinced that we could help. She felt alone and profoundly angry--she had every right to be. She had been victimized by a multibillion dollar industry that systematically targets the most vulnerable children in our communities.
Now four years later, Tanya is a strong, proud young woman. She is clear that what happened to her was not her fault--that she is neither damaged nor worthless. She believes in her heart that her Mentor cares for her, wants the best for her, and has full faith in her. She has found her voice and sees herself as a leader in the movement to end exploitation. She has been an active member of our Leadership Corps, and is someone other girls in our program look up to.
Last year, as it became clear that Tanya would graduate from high school on track with her peers, we began to talk with her about college. Tanya was so sure that college wasn't in the cards for her--she didn't believe that she could find a community where she could fit. We believed differently. And with the incredible generosity of a local top university, Tanya received a four year scholarship. Tanya believes differently now too.
At My Life My Choice, we are focused on helping survivors of exploitation find their voice, their place, their strength, and their resilience. To reach this goal, we offer a continuum of services that begins with prevention and centers around our Survivor Mentor program in which young people with a history of exploitation, or deemed to be high risk, receive one on one support for as long as they need it. We have always served girls, and as of Spring 2014, we have a pilot program for boys and transgender youth. To learn more, check out our new website at fightingexploitation.org.
As we walked through her dorm, Tanya pointed to different doors where her new friends lived. She told me about the incredible food in the cafeteria, her really nice roommate, her own messy side of her dorm room, and how great her public speaking class is. I left homemade cookies, pizza money, and a card from all the staff, telling her how much we all love her. Tanya deserves this and so much more. Every young person does.
Like Tanya, there are countless girls who are commercially sexually exploited every day. Like Tanya, they need compassion, support, faith, and opportunity to become the next generation of leaders in the fight to end exploitation.