Over the past several years I have had the unique opportunity to advocate for and walk alongside adult survivors. In April 2019, I began my journey working with youth and everything changed for me. On day one, I knew this is exactly where I wanted to be. I still remember my first official client. I did her “assessment” and just got to know her as a person. I wasn’t sure how that first meeting went, but when I came back the next week she greeted me with a bright smile and a happy “you came back!”
Those three words: you. came. back. That hits hard. I thought to myself, “Of course I came back…why wouldn’t I?” and then I was reminded that this amazing person had been through so much more than I could ever imagine. She had not only experienced trafficking but neglect, abuse, and manipulation from those she loved most. She had lived her whole life never knowing someone who “came back.”
One of the true joys about my job is that I get to go against that grain. I love showing up week after week, even when the kiddo has had a bad week or has told me they don’t want to see me again. Just by showing up, I am able to express to them that I care. I show that they are worth every bit of my time and that I am there to support them 24/7!
You may be wondering, “How do you support survivors in this way?” The answer is more simple than you might think: I show up and listen. I build relationships. And as much as I wish I could say that I’ve made a huge difference in the lives of the youth we serve and that many of them are better people because of me – the truth is, it’s the other way around. Since my very first interaction until now, I have not only grown as a person but my empathy, love, compassion, and understanding for others has grown because of the survivors I work with. Every day they teach me more than I could ever learn in a classroom and for that, I am grateful.
As previously mentioned I’ve learned many lessons from working with youth who have experienced trafficking. But I want to tell you specifically what my biggest takeaway is. This may surprise you a bit but stay with me and I think you’ll start to see my point of view.
Through working with youth I have learned time and time again that your past does not define you.
You may wonder why I chose this as my first lesson learned from working with youth and probably rightly so. This sounds like something that would be put on an inspirational poster. But let me tell you why it is so important for the youth I work with. Many (not all) of the survivors I work with have been neglected and abused from a very young age. They have never truly had a supportive family or friends that they could trust wholeheartedly. They have been manipulated and used either for financial gain, emotional gain, or just used as a person to exert power over. With all this unhealthy behavior surrounding them as they grow, they start to adopt those unhealthy traits themselves. Soon these children grow to be teenagers and find themselves in trouble at school, with the law, and with other adults in their lives. Even their parents start to wonder why they have children who are acting out and in turn getting the parents in trouble with the law as well. By some standards, these teens are on a fast track to prison.
But I’m here to tell you that they are not. The majority of the “kids” I work with are between the ages of 14-17. This would technically define them as teenagers and teenagers can be challenging to work with. But they are also the most rewarding to work with. These kids have been through more than many adults have by the time they are 14 years old. A common theme when working with these kids is that they want to change. They want to be better people and they want to defy the odds against them. They know that their past does not get the final word on who they will become.
Is their past difficult to overcome? Absolutely. But I have never seen a stronger and more motivated group of individuals than the youth I work with now. They have shown me that no matter what I’ve been through, whether that be from my own decisions or by life circumstances beyond my control, I can overcome it and come out on the other side stronger than ever before.
One of my favorite things to remind the youth I work with is this: It is never too late to start over. No matter how deep in trouble you are or how far you think you have fallen, or how many setbacks you have had…there is always time to stand back up again and try again. I can say that with confidence this is huge for every survivor out there whether that be trafficking, sexual assault, or abuse. There is ALWAYS time to start over and begin again.
If I have learned this through working with youth, you can, too. Today, I encourage you to live like a survivor. Don’t let your past define you. Move forward with confidence knowing that you are stronger than what you have been through and you have the power to change the outcome of your life. You are strong and you are resilient. But don’t just take my word for it – listen to those who have gone from victim to survivor to thriver.