Transforming girls lives with safety and structure

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When we hear the words sex trafficking, many of us immediately think of illegal immigrants being forced into prostitution.  Sadly, most of the trafficking cases in this country involve American citizens. Malika Saada Saar, the executive director of Rights4Girls, says the "majority of these children being sold for sex are girls between the ages of 12 and 14. They are the lost girls, standing around bus stops, hanging out by runaway youth shelters, or advertised online. At the Motel 8 or the Marriott, at McDonalds or the clubs."

 "Targeting and harming America’s children through commercial sex trafficking is a heinous crime, with serious consequences," says FBI director James B. Comey.  This past summer, the FBI, along with local, state, and federal law enforcement partners and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, recovered 168 juveniles in a nationwide operation targeting commercial child sex trafficking.  18 juveniles were recovered in Denver.

imagesFor more than 41 years, Excelsior Youth Center has been transforming the lives of girls between the ages of 11 and 18. Girls who come from "backgrounds of so much trauma," according to Executive Director Susan Hebert.  "Our girls have faced physical or sexual abuse, they've been involved in sex trafficking, or they have a mental health diagnosis sometimes in combination with substance abuse issues."

In July of 2014, Hebert was named EYC's Executive Director.  "I believe we can change the lives of each and every girl.  We have the hope they want and it's contagious.  Someone believes in them."

I believe I was 17 and I stayed maybe six months (at Excelsior Youth Center) but it was a great experience for me. At first I was scared because I was far away from home, but I had a caseworker named Wendy and she helped me get through the process. The dorms had long hallways and one of staff I remember was Jared. My room was all the way in the back next to the bathroom. What I loved most were the meals and Christmas holiday where the staff brought me a radio. I would recommend this place to anyone.

Maggie, a former student, is now 33, married and a certified nurse assistant helping the elderly.

images-1But how does a troubled girl make this transition from a life of destruction to believing in themselves?  Hebert says the counselors, teachers and staff at EYC begin with safety for each girl. "It's a human need to want to feel safe.  They can't grow without feeling safe.  Only then can we build a network for them involving their therapist, cottage counselor, teachers and staff."

Once that girl feels safe, they're surrounded by structure.  "This consistency," says Hebert, "is critical for how each girl feels safe. We engage their family immediately, even foster and adoptive families, so that she can go back to her normal environment, when possible. There's no doubt her best potential for continued success is to work with the whole family to help them pay attention, address signs of danger and have behavioral expectations."

In the past few months, this emphasis to look for that permanent relationship with their family and community has evolved to this new mission statement:

To strengthen and educate youth and families, to achieve lasting success through a continuum of innovative treatments and services and solutions.

Excelsior Continuum Full v2 January 2015 (4)At EYC, the average length of stay now is three months in a residential program. But Hebert says they are working with many more girls in a 21 day intensive program with community based efforts that don't require boarding.   They are even expanding their mission statement to involve boys and are currently serving two boys in their community programs.

"We want to be learning leaders and create better outcomes for all of the young people we serve, and be able to better measure those results," says Hebert.

Many of the girls come back to remind everyone who works with EYC how important their role has been in their lives.  Beverly is one of those young women:

Stopped by to see you! 3 years later and you’ve still had a huge impact on my life. Thank You so much. I hope all is well! I turn 20 in May and have a wonderful job. With your positive help You kept me going and helped me understand how special I am and to never give up on my dreams.

Excelsior Youth Center is working to find hope for the lost girls Saar refers to,  "girls like Jackie who ran away from an abusive home at 13 only to be found alone and hungry by a trafficker who promised to love her like a father/boyfriend/Prince Charming. He sold her to at least six different men every night. When she begged him for food or rest, he beat her.
EYC is coordinating efforts with mental health centers in the Denver Metro area, as well as rural areas.  They want to partner with schools, county and state leaders to expand how they serve youth and families. At Excelsior, there's a reason why these girls have hope:
  1. Someone has to believe in you.
  2. You have to feel safe.
  3. Reconnect with real life.

Following this approach, EYC's programs "are designed to treat the whole child which means providing comprehensive services including: individual and family therapy, group therapy, psychiatric and medical services, wellness and recreational services, spiritual services, education, and vocational opportunities."

As a non profit, Excelsior Youth Center hosts an annual Triumphant Faces Gala. Coming up on Friday, February 20th, the proceeds from the Black Tie Masquerade Ball will support EYC girls who have been victims of human trafficking, as the number of those girls is growing every year.  This year's Triumphant Woman honoree is Roseanne Barr. There are still tickets available.                                                                                              

Lois’ Living Through It blogs are posted on Mondays and Thursdays. Join her Monday mornings around 8:45am on Good Day Colorado.

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