Our C.E.O. Shamere McKenzie and Her Story
Once a Victim, Once a Survivor, Now a Liberator
The Story of Shamere McKenzie
Written by: Hannah Terry
Life with a purpose:
God calls each of us to do something with our lives. We were placed here in this world for a greater purpose than ourselves. Yet many people today have forgotten that we are not here for ourselves, that our lives were meant to be bigger than just the pleasure we would like to receive. Everything that we experience, that we have to go through, God has set for us. Our lives are planned before we even know what is in store for us. Some take the challenges in their lives and ask why and cannot move on. Others know that God is guiding them, placing them in each situation for a greater purpose and are ready for the next step. Many do not come to this realization until later, but they know that without God they would not be where they are today. One such incredible woman believes that she went through hell and survived to be able to save others who are still enslaved.
We sat in a coffee shop, Shamere and I. We look like two “normal” women catching up. No one would have guessed that the beautiful, intelligent, young woman across from me was once a slave. I, in fact, did not know that Shamere was a survivor of human trafficking until a few weeks after I started working with her. She would come into work with a smile and a kind word for everyone. She is one of the kindest and most uplifting people that I know. She told me her past was all part of God’s plan for her, that her life has meaning because of His plans.
How it all began:
Shamere had attended a New York college on an athletic scholarship. When she was 21 she met the man who would forever change her life. He was sweet, nice, and intelligent. They had in-depth conversations and soon began to see each other regularly. Shamere never knew that he was a pimp looking for his next target. Shamere wanted to go back to school and he promised to help her. His idea of help was forcing Shamere into the commercial sex industry for 18 months. 7 nights a week she was exploited and forced to work as a prostitute for a man whom she had thought loved her. In addition, she was severely beaten, brutally raped and sodomized. She was trafficked to 5 different states in those 18 months; New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Texas, and Florida. Every night she had a quota of $1,500 to meet before she was able to go back to her pimp’s house. If she didn’t meet the quota she was “tortured”.
The brutal enslavement:
Even during her enslavement Shamere was strong-willed and determined. Many times she resisted the men who bought her. For her disobedience she was severely beaten. Yet this did not stop her. She tried to run away different times, but was always afraid that her pimp would find her and kill her or her family as he said he would. Even in her fear, she aided two other women in their escape. Shamere’s determination almost got her killed on many occasions. Her pimp forced her to drive women across state lines at gun point. Shamere thought she was choosing death by defying her pimp. He put the gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. Surprisingly the gun was not loaded, so he beat her with the gun and then forced her to drive the girls. One was a minor, 12 years old.
Some ask why she didn’t just go to the police. She could not trust them, they had arrested her multiple times, some of the officers were her buyers, and others taunted her, calling her names, as she walked the street. So Shamere decided that she would stop making her pimp money, if she was unproductive he would no longer need her. Instead of bring him $1,500 a night she would go back with only $200 and sometimes no money at all. Her pimp got angry, left Shamere in the living room of the house they were living in, in a gated community in Florida, while he went to get his gun. Hearing the clicking of the gun, knowing that this time it would be loaded and she would be killed, Shamere ran.
Many of us believe that we have someone looking out for us, a guardian angel to protect us when life is unbearable. That night Shamere was saved by a man she calls her Guardian Angel. He gave her a place to rest, food, and a way to call her mom. She cannot remember his name or what he looked like but her Angel gave Shamere a way out.
Life after being trafficked:
But Shamere’s story does not stop there. Shamere is a survivor, a leader, and an advocate for all who are enslaved in the commercial sex industry. Her voice is her most powerful weapon and she is bent on making sure that our world, our country, our elected leaders, and our communities know about the horrors of human trafficking. Her recovery process was a long journey, one filled with ups and downs. At first she could not come to terms with her past. Why had she been forced into the life, why had she been arrested by the FBI, alongside of her pimp, and charged as a sex offender when she was a victim? What had she done wrong? For a time, Shamere had no hope, she could not pick up the pieces, she could not tell any of her friends what had happened to her, and she even attempted suicide. She made up stories about where she had been for 5 years. Until she met Kevin Bales, she had no reason to live.
Kevin Bales, is the Co-Founder of Free the Slaves and author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Modern Slavery: The Secret World of 20 Million People, and The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today. He included Shamere’s story in The Salve Next Door. Shamere was not ready to share her story yet, to have her name attached to human trafficking. Yet after she met with Bales and began to talk to him about her experience she began to feel better. She began the process of healing. Bales lit the flame, and Shamere knew that she had to share her story more. She began to work on a survivor’s hot line, answering calls and talking to girls who had gone through that same hell as she had.
Liberation for others:
Shamere is one of the survivor leaders. She is “The voice of those who are still enslaved; those who perished while enslaved; and the voice for those who are free but don’t have the courage to speak.” She declared that she is living only by the grace of God. He saved her and she knows that she must seek Him first and follow His path for her. Because there are still girls enslaved Shamere believes her purpose is to raise awareness, to talk to as many people as she can, to shout from the highest mountain, about the life of the forgotten; women, girls and young boys, that are being enslaved in the sex industry.
Shamere formerly worked as the Program Assistant for Shared Hope International and is a former member of the DC Human Trafficking Task Force. Currently, she serves on the speaker’s bureau for the Fredrick Douglas Family Initiative and Survivors of Slavery organizations. She is a subject matter expert consultant with Fox Valley Technical College Amber Alert TTA; a member of the National Survivor Network and the Survivor Leadership Institute; a mentor to survivors of sex trafficking and an international speaker; traveling to other countries to speak to both the general population and to work with governments to spread awareness about human trafficking. Shamere is a part of the More than a Survivor: “More than my Story Campaign”,
Photo of Shamere in the More Than a Survivor
Campaign taken by J Shotti of GLMS Photography
a product of the Survivor Leadership Institute by GEMS. “The traveling Campaign features a poster series of 22 portraits of women from across the United States who have survived human trafficking and are now leaders in all areas, from the arts, politics, science, to the non-profit world. The exhibition portrays and credits the diversity, beauty, strength, accomplishments of these leaders. The hope of this campaign is that it will be utilized by agencies serving youth to show young women who have been affected by the commercial sex industry that there is hope.”
Shamere has been on multiple TV, radio, and news interviews. Along with her story published in Kevin Bales Slave Next Door, her story has been published in college textbooks to educate students on human trafficking. She has also received a book deal and currently deciding if she would like to write a book, at this time. Her thought is to write a book about following dreams despite any adversity that may stand in the way. She has worked with Halogen TV, Real Faith TV, Black Entertainment Television (BET), Al Jazeera and other programs to bring about awareness of human trafficking. She has been at the National Association for Attorney General’s winter meeting, spoken with government officials to try to change laws concerning human trafficking and victims, and has been the guest speaker on many college and university campuses to raise awareness on the issue.
The Journey Continues:
Today her life is vastly different from when she was 21 and from a year ago. She now has her Associate Degree in Liberal Arts from St. John’s University and with the help of Kevin Bales, John Donoghue and Father Justin Daffron, Shamere was accepted into Loyola University, Chicago, in January 2014 on a scholarship. After having been out of school for 9 years, Shamere’s first semester was rough as she could not find a place to live and for the first two months spent her nights on a friends couch. That did not stop Shamere though; she will be graduating in May 2015, with a Bachelor degree in Criminal Justice and will be going to law school to study Public Interest Law. Along with continuing her education, Shamere is now the CEO of the Sun Gate Foundation, a 5013c, with a mission to “provide support to survivors of human trafficking by creating opportunities to access education. Through these opportunities, survivors can generate manageable, independent lives throughout their long term restoration process. The organization helps to provide education to both high school and college students through: tuition assistance, financial aid for books, child care for survivors with children, and GED requirement for survivors.
Shamere is an incredible woman, who despite her past, is empowered and making a difference in the world. She always tells people that change starts with self and that you need to be the change you wish to see in the world. She is excited about the new chapter in her life with Sun Gate Foundation that will have a huge impact in the restoration process for survivor of human trafficking. She is following God’s call for her. She knows her path; she is part of the solution. Shamere is not a victim of sex trafficking, but a survivor, an overcomer, a voice fighting for the basic rights for every human being.
To read more about Hannah’s blog visit http://oncesheltered.wordpress.com/about/