Some injustices are so great they cannot be ignored.
Human trafficking is a crime that takes place in the dark corners of society. Victims are groomed, often through social media apps, and brought into a horrifying world that is difficult to escape.
Trafficking occurs all over the world and in every part of Georgia, including the Golden Isles. This large and looming problem comes with a mountain-high pile of challenges for those who try to address the issue. House of Hope in Glynn County opened in November to take on some of that challenge. But the nonprofit cannot do the work alone.
House of Hope is a faith-based nonprofit organization that takes in victims of sex trafficking and provides them with a home and with therapeutic services as the victims begin the process of healing. The house serves age 12 to 17 and offers six beds.
Only 33 beds in this kind of home placement facility exist in Georgia, despite the pervasiveness of human trafficking of young women and men in the state. House of Hope’s six beds are the only ones in Coastal Georgia.
“We’ve got 33 beds and a significant problem,” said Darcelle Burandt, the founder of House of Hope. “It’s one of the largest problems in the state of Georgia … And they do not have any beds other than ours in the coastal region.”
For every girl taken out of the human trafficking industry, even more are saved. A trickle-down effect exists through which sex trafficking victims are groomed to recruit more victims, through subtle tools like social media.
“The reality is that these girls are being groomed and coerced and manipulated into becoming exploiters themselves,” said Shelley Hendrix, outreach director for House of Hope. “So, if you consider that every girl is being groomed to recruit four to six more, then as they’re groomed to recruit more, that allows the trafficker himself or herself to create a wall of separation, a degree of separation, from the law enforcement and being caught.”
Taking just one girl off the street ultimately saves many more.
“In my mind, I think about those six girls that are in the house and how many girls are at home in their own beds tonight because these six girls are at House of Hope,” Hendrix said. “… The recruiting methods are becoming so subtle — if you’re a minor, you’re at risk. That really is what it boils down to.”
How to help
No one can do everything. But everyone can do something.
House of Hope recently began a new program for donors called Adopt for Hope, through which supporters can pledge monthly donations of different monetary amounts to support the operating costs of the house.
“Everyone’s doing their part of maybe $50, $100, $200,” Burandt said. “… If we had a number of those, then we’re not asking for so much money.”
House of Hope needs to raise at least $15,000 a month during its first year of operation, Burandt said, until the nonprofit can get grants in place and foundation support.
“It’s going to take us about a year to get up and running on those because it’s not stuff that funds immediately,” she said.
Community members can also support the House of Hope through volunteer opportunities that are available on the nonprofit’s website. Items can be bought through an Amazon Wishlist. A meal train ministry is also in place, through which participants can sign up to bring meals to the house on certain nights every week.
“If we all just do our part, then nobody’s overwhelmed, and these girls get the help that they need,” Hendrix said.
Hope is priceless
House of Hope provides a therapeutic group home setting that offers safety, trauma-informed care by trained professionals, education, therapy and job and life skills training.
Money raised through donations will go to the monthly operating costs of the house. The monthly budget, Burandt said, is about $40,000. The state provides about a third of that money.
“For the rest of it, we’re depending on donations and the community,” she said. “They’ve been so supportive, so we’re just asking them to support us now in a different way.”
The community played a significant role in helping House of Hope open, donating money for the house’s renovation, providing furnishings and decorations to make it a home-like space and helping the nonprofit meet the many state regulations required for this kind of facility.
Now, the house needs support providing 24/7 care to the girls who live there. They also hope to support the staff who are working in the house.
“The average length of time a person works in mental health before they experience burnout is a year,” Hendrix said. “What we want to do is be able to adequately staff the house, to take care of the staff at the same time that they’re taking care of these girls.”
The girls are provided with daily group therapy sessions and other therapeutic activities. They’re also homeschooled at the house.
“A lot of times, putting a girl back into the public school system or private would be adding to her trauma,” Hendrix said. “Because she’s missed so much school and because of the trauma she’s experienced, it’s very hard to go back into a peer group.”
House of Hope is a unique facility in the way the nonprofit pairs a home-like atmosphere with mental health care services.
“The therapeutic approach that we take with the girls is more like a mental health facility in a home-like setting, and so we really address them daily like you would at a mental health hospital,” Burandt said. “So they’re getting their true therapeutic needs met here.”
Each girl has her own bedroom. She has her own four walls and a door that offers privacy, which is a right many of these girls have not had for a long time.
“It’s to reinforce the boundaries of their bodies — that their bodies are their bodies,” Hendrix said. “They get to say who has access to it.”
House of Hope staff are also educating the community on the realities of the sex trafficking industry through training events, workshops with parents, seminars and speaking engagements. Hundreds of thousands of children are trafficked in the United States each year. Most of them are girls under the age of 18.
In Georgia, it’s estimated that up to 830 girls are sexually exploited each month. The average age of those girls is 12-14 years old.
Sex trafficking could affect any family, yet organizations providing the services House of Hope offers are rare in Georgia. Creating this kind of facility requires years of work and at least hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But the fight is worth it, Burandt said, when sex trafficking victims are removed from that dark world and brought back into the light.
The hefty challenge emboldens the staff at House of Hope to continue working and to involve as many as possible in the fight against sex trafficking, Hendrix said.
“For me, hearing about and learning about the trauma is one thing, but meeting flesh and blood teenagers who have experienced it is life changing,” she said. “You can’t go back to not knowing.”
Information about the “Adopt for Hope” program and volunteer opportunities can be found online at houseofhoperefugeoflove.com.