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Keisha Head

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is something fresh in the air, promising even. I can smell it, taste it on my lips. Am I the only one with this feeling? I know, I know… it’s that New Year’s optimism. That glass–half-full feeling or the out–with-the-old–and-in-with-the-new attitude. Yes, I’ve been bitten by the New Year’s bug. Considering all the great things I foresee in 2016, rightfully so.

A new year springs forth new beginnings, new possibilities, and a fresh start. Many people ring in the year refreshed, attempting new resolutions (that will be forgotten by spring), starting new projects, ending bad relationships, finding new love. The list is endless. You feel empowered to do the unthinkable, and nothing can hold you back, right? Well, wrong. Lack of empowerment, opportunity and support annihilates any dream and limits the ability to move forward, especially in the lives of Human Trafficking survivors.

A few months ago I had the privilege to encounter a remarkable young lady. In the middle of the night, I received a call from a desperate and distraught mother. She explained that she was in another state and her daughter and granddaughter were in Georgia, fleeing a trafficker. Frantically, she begged me to help her. I called the young lady and she shared her trauma and that she had just escaped her trafficker of 6 years. The only thing she had was her three year old and the clothes on her back. Nothing else mattered… she was free! I thrust into action to secure other items for her. Long story short, the young lady ended up in another bad situation.

During it all I stayed close and constant. I knew the disaster would soon come. I was patient.

On Christmas Day she called me in desperate need. She called ME! I understand the strength it must have taken to trust me. Because of those who empowered me during my ordeal, I am now blessed to be in a position to empower others. I quickly reached out to the National Survivor Network for help. Survivors in every state galvanized resources for this young lady. Today she has options to travel to California (a place she’s dreamed of traveling to), Montana, Texas, and a few other states. What seemed like a powerless situation is now hopeful because of empowering opportunities that are limitless.

There are also larger efforts being made this year by organizations such as the Sun Gate Foundation to unfold initiatives that empower the lives of survivors through education. In California, Runaway Girl and Ending the Game empower through awareness and provide employment opportunities to survivors. In New York, at the GEMS’ Survivor Leadership Institute and Resource Center survivors are empowered through Leadership. Online, Rebecca Bender Ministries empowers through mentorship and The National Survivor Network empowers survivors through unity. In Washington, DC, 7 Layers Captive empowers through the arts. Just to name a few, I’ve chosen to highlight these survivor-led organizations because they stand as a true testament of Empowerment.

As a survivor of Human Trafficking, one of the most powerful tools given to me has been empowerment. I have the power to design my life in a way that works best for me and have favorable options for my future. Survivors are no longer limited. For the first time in my life the saying “You can be ANYTHING you want to be” is no longer a cliché. Today Survivors have a HOPE for Tomorrow.

Can you smell it? That smell in the air is opportunity!

Written By:

 Keisha Head
Sun Gate Foundation Secretary of Board

As a survivor of domestic child sex trafficking Keisha speaks, trains, and advocates throughout all the various state agencies who have contact with potential CSEC victims. She has been called upon by the US Department of Justice as an expert and advocates for legislation that protects victims of human trafficking. She uses her personal story of being a victim, turned survivor, emerged leader, to serve as the voice for countless others who aren’t strong enough to speak for themselves.  Click here to read more about Keisha. 

David Wayne realWhen I received an invitation to write as a guest contributor for Sun Gate Foundation’s blog, I inquired about a specific theme or topic as the focus. Since December is often associated with giving, I was encouraged to write about the greatest gift,. I was also informed that because the foundation’s mission is to provide empowerment through assistance for higher learning, many previous blog posts revolved around education. I was given an opportunity to choose freely, though, and my choice was easy. I chose love.

I don’t mean any ordinary kind of love. The greatest gift we can ever give or receive is unconditional love, with people where they are, regardless of circumstances. It means loving enough to let some people into your life, and also enough to let go. It’s not rushing to rescue someone when they could be empowered to overcome their own challenges. It’s not shutting off when someone is out of sight, and it’s not turning one’s back when we say, “I’m sorry, there’s not much I can do.” There is always something we can do. We can love.

It costs nothing to give love and the action is priceless. It can make all the difference in the world, even though the person you’re loving may not realize that yet. Give them time. Unconditional love is patient. It is justice that our world of suffering deserves. Everyone says knowledge is power, yet power is meaningless unless it is applied. When applied with unconditional love, it breaks chains and tears down walls. That is what opens hearts and minds to possibilities instead of remaining closed by limitations. It is what lights the candle of hope within us when all else is dark.

This perfect gift in an imperfect world doesn’t require converting to any religion, even though many of us think of Jesus when we think of unconditional love. If it required anything at all, it would not be unconditional. You can’t give it because you’re instructed to, or because you’ll suffer if you don’t. We can all start by loving ourselves unconditionally, and forgiving ourselves.

When I work with anyone who is struggling through life because of trauma and negative self-perceptions, I ask them to stand before a mirror with their hand on their heart, and say out loud with clarity, “I am a good person.” That’s a start. I often follow up with having them say, “I am worthy of love.” If the first affirmation doesn’t stir tears, the second certainly will. We forget these truths in the course of our lives, and it’s easy to slip into patterns that take us further away. I know this because I’ve lived it. Fourteen years of sexual abuse, being sexually trafficked as a minor, and two years of commercial sexual exploitation as a young adult left me hollow and forced me to repeat cycles of coping behaviors that held me back. No matter how good my life was, or how much I improved as a person, I fought against my truths.

When we can do this and truly feel it down to our bones, then it becomes possible to give the gift of unconditional love to others. It’s a gift for all seasons, not just December. Give it to yourself and everyone around you, as often as possible.

Written by David Wayne

Road to Freedom

Getting “in” and Getting “out”

I was attending college at the time that a trafficker recruited me my second night working at an adult club. I was a single mom to a medically needy baby, facing massive medical bills, my ultimate goal being to support myself and care for my child during the day. After targeting me and deliberately gaining information from me to learn my vulnerabilities, the trafficker held me in a warehouse for what they termed “breaking in the product”: a process of control, orders, being sold, rapes and beatings to near death. I was “the product”. As intended, it did break me as a human being, and served to make me compliant for quite a while. Even though at times I often had freedom of movement, my choices were controlled. I attempted to get out several times and faced repercussions. When I did extricate myself from my traffickers, a second pimp, and that life of exploitation in general, I lost everything and was on and off the streets.

It was very difficult to get out and stay out. Faced with the possibility of being homeless again and back in the clubs, I applied to a university basically because it had housing but also because I had started back taking college courses online (I was too afraid to leave the house to attend in person) and I knew that a degree was my only long-term option to truly be out and stay out. There were several obstacles to being re-admitted, due to my past in surviving exploitation, but I was very lucky to receive that acceptance letter!

You hear the word “rescue” being thrown around a lot with regard to human trafficking victims; however, very few that get out are actually “rescued” in what we understand to be the traditional meaning of the word. Even if they are identified and recovered or removed (through a sting or law enforcement investigation), they rarely see it at the time as a rescue, due to the traumatic bonding, fear, normalization, hopelessness, etc. that can occur throughout the time of exploitation. Even when one wants to exit, escapes, or is recovered, these effects are incredibly pervasive on a victim’s life and ability to reintegrate. A rescue implies a “happily ever after”, when in reality it is the beginning of figuring out an entirely different world from the one you just left. Consistent, safe, and reliable long-term support is a challenge…both in finding and in receiving.

Reintegrating and starting over

Getting back into college was one way I could separate myself further from that life and those who exploited and abused me, so education truly did rescue me. At my university, I was able to get all the needs met that are so essential to recovery. I had safe housing, education (which ultimately meant long-term financial self-sufficiency), medical, and counseling (both educational/career as well as mental health).

Most importantly: I met my victim advocate, who has been irreplaceable and without whom, I would never be where I’m at today, and I was connected to specially trained law enforcement who helped me understand the dynamics of exploitation and that I was actually a victim and not a stupid, shameful, worthless person who deserved what happened to her. It was the beginning of the understanding that that wasn’t the way my value as a person had to be defined. My first detective would become an instrumental person in my life and for my personal growth and healing.

It was still not an easy road from this beginning of a new life. I faced daily anxiety and panic in attending classes, and sleep issues. I was unable to handle cash or money decisions without panic attacks, if at all, and the financial stresses in the student loan process were overwhelming. I constantly felt I didn’t belong in the “normal world”, and frequently felt pressure and pull to return to the familiar even though I knew it was not safe or healthy. This really underlines something important: the effects of exploitation do not end when the victimization ends or when a victim gets out or when a case is closed. Being identified as a victim is really just the beginning of a long, if not lifelong, recovery process. It requires consistent and long-term support. For me, I knew education was my way out—a commitment, a tangible strategy to never going back, economic possibilities within my own control and no one else’s. As I continued my learning process (both toward my degree and through the investigation of the traffickers), I’ve gradually built up my support system and taken more steps towards healing. If someone had asked me while I was in the clubs, on the streets, or being sold… if I ever thought I would be in my last year of law school, I would have literally laughed in their face (or thrown a few choice words at them)! Sometimes I still can’t believe it myself J

Continual Process

In addition to violence, intimidation, and fear, the fraudulent use of the legal system was a factor in my case as it is in many others. Learning the law for what it actually is and not how it was manipulated was essential for me to truly understand the dynamics of how I was exploited and to continue recovery from that trauma. Learning the true legal system and the elements of exploitation in my case, reintegrating through the educational process—all of this helped me identify my traumatic symptoms and recognize triggers to begin working on in specialized trauma therapy. I continue this ongoing personal development since the PTSD that victims of exploitation experience has been described as complex, and similar to that of combat veterans. I had to learn coping skills, stumble through real-life (not “the life”) experiences, begin to understand and continue understanding what healthy relationships actually are, have setbacks and learn to grow from them, figuring out my identity as a human being and not a commodity. I will never get back the person I was before the exploitation, but I am learning how to be successful as a whole and healthy person now.

Education really is a bridge to authentic freedom, and it is absolutely essential for survivors to rebuild their lives. I am incredibly passionate about finding ways to support the education of survivors, not just because survivors need it… But because we need survivors! And we need them whole and moving forward! We need their expertise in all areas of professions. We benefit from investing in their ability to harness every aspect of their talents and capabilities—in whatever realm of life and career they may choose. We benefit from compensating them for their expertise, which is unlike any other, and not re-exploiting them. Additionally, by doing so, we demonstrate to survivors that they DO indeed belong in “THIS world” and not back in a life of being exploited. That the “absence of a life”…the absence of truly being free, the absence of truly living… in exploitation was never supposed to be the way we are of value. It demonstrates that our intellect, opinion, contribution, development, experiences, and partnership is essential and respected. We demonstrate to survivors that they never did deserve what happened to them and that they are meant for so much more.

Written by “Amy”

Our CEO, Shamere McKenzie and our Senior Advisor to our Board of Directors, Kevin Bales, will speak at the University of Hull’s Anti-Slavery Usable Past conference today, which will bring together experts from around the world at its Wilberforce Institute of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) to discuss what lessons can be learned from history in tackling slavery today. Click hereKevin and Shamere Yorkshire to read full article written by Yorkshire Post UK

“But we believe everyone has a role to play in fighting slavery, even if it is just thinking about the goods you buy.” Click here to read the full article written by Hull Daily Mail UK on the work of our CEO Shamere McKenzie and Senior Advisor to our Board of Directors, Kevin Bales in Hull, England.

Hull Article

 

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I cried the first time I walked through the doors of the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston). My time had finally come to get my Ph.D. For decades I knew I would get my doctorate “someday” and the moment had arrived. I called my husband in tears. I needed to say the words “I am really going to get my Ph.D.” aloud –and for him to hear me – before the reality could truly sink in.

 
Education was my “way out” of a family locked in generational cycles of violence, substance abuse, mental illness and poverty. My mother had dreamed of escaping by going to college in Hawaii, but was told by her abusive father that she could learn everything in the factory where she worked that she could in college. The owners of the family pharmacy where my father worked offered to send him to the local college, but he turned them down. His priority was easy access to drugs rather than an education.

 
From a very early age I knew I needed to get away. My very first memory is of being sexually assaulted by my member of my immediate family in the back of a family friend’s bar. I was preverbal at the time, but I just remember feeling “shattered.” The world had somehow changed, but everyone was acting like nothing had happened. I continued to be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by multiple members of both sides of my family until early adolescence. During that same time an immediate member of my family commercially sexually exploited me at truck stops and parties to support his drug addiction.

 
I knew I had found my escape route when I began to read in first grade. Books not only gave me a place to flee in my mind, but I also aspired to be like my teacher. She was kind, independent, and smart: my first role model. Learning made me happy and, for the first time, hopeful. I begged my mother to drive me to the town library 30 minutes away. My library card was my first passport. I felt independent and grateful for the opportunity to have a building other than church where I felt safe.

 
The sexual abuse and exploitation finally stopped when I was in middle school. The physical and emotional abuse continued, and so did my resolve to leave my family and my hometown by going to college far away (just as my mother had hoped for herself). In high school, I took several college-level courses at the very university where my father had refused to go. I turned 18 one day and graduated from high school the next. Three months later, my mother drove me college 2 ½ hours away. I had made it.

 
Yet, in many ways my work was only beginning. While my mother had encouraged my college education, she did not have any means to help me pay for my degree. My undergraduate degree took six years to complete because I had to take time off to work. Additionally, my mother died of cancer six months before I graduated. She waited until I had registered for classes to tell me her bone marrow transplant hadn’t worked for fear I would stay home to take of her instead of finishing school. Before she died, my mother told me to follow some friends to Boston and to get my master’s degree. I did both.

 
While receiving my master’s degree I started putting the pieces together about my abuse and exploitation history. “We study our pain,” is a common belief at the Wellesley Centers for Women, a research and action department of Wellesley College, where I now work as a social scientist. I initially focused on prostitution, which led me to the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). I had also started therapy during the same time, which also helped me to navigate the “roadmap” of my past. I confronted my abusers during this time and was told to never contact them again. I knew too much.

 
Thankfully I now have a true family and close circle of friends that support and care for me. I have been married for almost 13 years and we have an extraordinary 9 year-old son. Plus, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a profoundly inspiring tribe of CSEC survivors, including Shamere McKenzie and the Sun Gate Foundation. These peeps, in addition to my Wellesley colleagues, are all encouraging me that the “time is now” for my Ph.D. The call for empirical CSEC research is pressing, even more so, I deserve to realize this final educational aspiration.

Written by Kate Price

Sun Gate Foundation sole purpose is providing access to education for survivors of human trafficking.  We strongly believe education is one avenue survivors can reclaim their lives and live a life they imagine.  Our CEO Shamere McKenzie is living proof that survivors can reclaim their lives through education. On May 8, 2015 she graduated with her B.S. in Criminal Justice & Criminology.  This milestone was covered by CBS Chicago and you can read/watch the full story here.

 

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If anyone knows the words persistence and hard work, it’s our CEO Shamere McKenzie.  As Loyola is preparing for graduation next week, four graduates were highlighted and Shamere was one of them.

Click here to read the featured story on Loyola’s website.

 

We have two scholarship opportunities available for survivors of human trafficking:

  1. Leadership Scholarship
  2. Textbook Scholarship

Leadership Scholarship:

This scholarship is specific to survivors of human trafficking who are at a high school level.  Survivor must have a desire to complete high school. Applicant must first fill out a Sun Gate application and then they will be required to fill out an application for the school as a standard policy. Click here for more information.

Textbook Scholarship:

Thanks to all those who participated in the 5 for Five campaign.  Through your support, we are able to offer textbook scholarships to survivors enrolled in a college or university in the Fall 2015 semester. Click here for more details.

For application and additional information, please email scholarships@sun-gate.org

On Tuesday, February 17, 2015, Congressman Shock hosted a human trafficking panel at Illinois State University.  The panel include:

Congressman Schock–  the moderator for the panel and who provided a brief introduction of the importance of the event and the issues discussed.

Shamere McKenzie–  our CEO and survivor of human trafficking.

Special Agent Ben Baumann– Special Agent Baumann is an officer at the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations office in Chicago, IL. His work focuses on investigating trafficking cases and enforcing trafficking laws in the Midwest region, including Illinois.

Tamara Guy– Tamara Guy is a Prevention Specialist at Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, covering the central region, including McLean County.

Ed McKibbin– Ed is a Student Attorney in the Dean of Students office at ISU.

Click here for media coverage.

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