Kim was a rescued trafficking victim who had been sold for sex at an early age by her mom who was an addict. She came into foster care as a teen after many years of being “in the life.” Being bought and sold was all she’d ever known. To her, it was normal.
Kim’s challenges to create a new “normal” outside of the only life she remembered was a continuous struggle, a struggle that on some days wasn’t worth it. She was tempted to return by friends from her old life. She was living in a shelter with other girls, being treated like she was a kid because they had rules about everything. She felt like she had gone backward. She had been living like an adult even thought she was told by her “boyfriend” what to do and when to do it; and now she was living as a kid, being told what to do and when to do it by the staff at the shelter.
The good thing about the shelter was that Kim met a lady who seemed to really care about her. She knew the lady really cared because she wasn’t an employee of the shelter. This lady came by a couple times every week and would take Kim to lunch and sometimes to the movies just because she wanted to. Sometimes they didn’t go anywhere, and would just sit and talk. Kim noticed that this lady really listened to her when she talked. She didn’t look at her phone or look around the room or act like she was in a hurry to go somewhere else. The lady didn’t say much, she mostly listened. But when she did talk, everything she said was really nice. The lady told her that she was important, and she acted like it by showing up when she said she would and looking right at her when Kim talked. The lady’s name was Barbara, and she was Kim’s volunteer advocate.
With the consistent encouragement from Barbara and the staff at the shelter, Kim decided to give college a go. Barbara went with Kim to sign up and choose her classes, which was a good thing because Kim was overwhelmed with the campus. Even though it was just a community college, it seemed so big and so confusing. Kim wanted to leave, and if Barbara hadn’t been there, she would have left and never returned.
After Kim’s class choices were confirmed and she knew when she would be in school, Barbara helped Kim put applications in at nearby businesses where she’d be able to walk to work when she wasn’t in school. Barbara helped Kim get ready for her job interview at Starbucks, and she coached her on smiling and answering questions and not interrupting as she drove her there. Barbara acted like she’d just won the lottery when Kim got the job. Kim realized then that she could never remember anyone delighting in her that way.
Kim was so excited to open up her first paycheck, and she asked Barbara to join her. They giggled and made drum roll sounds as Kim opened the envelope. And then Kim fell silent. Barbara asked what was wrong, and Kim angrily replied that someone had stolen part of her money. Kim immediately went back to those feelings of being in the life when her boyfriend would take the money she’d earned. She thought that the manager at Starbucks had stolen her money. She knew what her hourly rate of pay was and how many hours she had worked, so she knew exactly what she should have been paid. She had already planned out how she was going to spend the money. There was an outfit she wanted and a pair of comfortable shoes she had planned to buy to wear to work because after the long walk to and from work and being on her feet for her entire shift, the shoes she had were killing her feet.
Barbara went over every part of the paycheck stub to explain all of the deductions that had been taken by the government out of Kim’s paycheck. She explained that no one had stolen from her, and that part of becoming an adult was paying taxes to the government, which are used to pay for public services like police and fire departments, and so on. Kim was relieved that she hadn’t been robbed but she still felt like she’d been cheated. She didn’t want to give any money to the government. She needed every penny of it for herself. Barbara helped Kim understand that paying taxes is part of becoming a responsible citizen.
As I finish this article, Kim is finishing her first year of college. She’s doing well in school and on the job because with every bump in the road, Barbara has been there to listen and to care. The moral to this story, and every other story of a victim of trafficking doing the very difficult work of learning what others learned as children and trying to create a good life for themselves is that having someone who genuinely cares can make all the difference. Being an advocate doesn’t require a college degree, a certain amount of money, or a level of status. It does require a willingness to genuinely care, attentively listen, and be patient. In other words, if you know how to be a good friend, you would make a terrific advocate.