The Together Project is a Fort Worth Moms Blog initiative to support local non-profits impacting women and children in North Texas and to mobilize FWMB readers to meet immediate needs. We are honored to partner with Valiant Hearts, which offers hope and help to victims of sexual exploitation. Together — because your family is my family.
It seemed as if every choice I made led to more abuse, and thinking about leaving was the most terrifying thought of all. I was trapped in the world of sexual exploitation for more than a decade. The man that promised to love and take care of me was also hurting me and forcing me to do unspeakable things on a daily basis.
Human trafficking is not a new phenomenon. It has been happening right under our noses for years. Today there are an estimated 300,000 victims of trafficking in the state of Texas alone. If trafficking is so ubiquitous, then why aren’t we seeing it more and doing everything we can to free those trapped? That is a layered question that deserves a complex answer.
For me personally, I did not believe I was a victim while I was still trapped. I thought somehow I was choosing my own exploitation and that the negative consequences I experienced almost daily (rapes, physical beatings, fist fights, verbal abuse, malnutrition, etc.) were all things I deserved for making bad choices. We can all agree that I never woke up one day and said “I want to be a prostitute” or “I wanted to take my clothes off for money.” Those were things I was forced and coerced into doing by manipulative traffickers that seemed helpful and kind when I first met them.
As a runaway at 17, all I wanted was acceptance, freedom, a boyfriend that would love me, and some sense of family. I had absolutely no clue that the man I met shortly after and asked me to move in with him would turn around the next day and force me into prostitution. I had nowhere else to turn.
At one point, I thought I made it out after running again, but unbeknownst to me I ran into the arms of another man who would abuse me and exploit me all over the country for the next 10 years of my life. I was living a mother’s worst nightmares day after day after day. These men offered a counterfeit version of what I was longing for: they accepted me right away (which felt good) without any expectations initially, they sold me dreams of how our lives would be better once we “made” it with whatever business or fantasies of becoming famous celebrities, they instantly acted like my boyfriends and protectors after the first day of meeting them, and they both came equipped with “folks,” meaning there was a false sense of family instilled with the other women being trafficked by the same person. Couple the false things offered with horrific abuse and constant manipulation and you now have a glimpse into why it was so hard to leave and understand that these men really did not have my best interests at heart! They only wanted to take everything I had and could get for them without a second thought of the cost to my body, brain, and soul.
I was finally able to escape in 2009 while my trafficker went to prison for two years. I slowly began to rebuild my life one hard decision after another. When I ran, I had already been arrested 10 times, had a federal felony for tax evasion and served 13 months in federal prison, and was a high school dropout (only earned my GED because federal prison made me). My trafficker had put more than a million dollars of debt in my name. I literally had no clue who I was even after being abused and tortured by so many men.
Since that time, I went to college and earned my bachelors degree, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a degree in criminal justice from Texas Wesleyan University and recently earned my masters degree in criminology and criminal justice from UTA. I am now the executive director of Valiant Hearts, a nonprofit based in Colleyville that serves people affected by sexual exploitation, and one of the first places I went for healing back in 2012.
I know and love the person I am today, but it is only because of Jesus and the community of regular people just like you that decided to help someone like me, instead of turning the other way and judging me without knowing my story. I love the life I have today!!
New beginnings are amazing, but what if I never had to go through all that? What if when I started sounding alarm bells by my behavior in school I was paired with an advocate instead of kicked out and rejected? What if more people knew the signs of trafficking and there was an intervention before I was isolated and without hope? That is why I do what I do today! I travel the country and have trained tens of thousands of law enforcement, social workers, school counselors, and the like on what human trafficking actually looks like in America and what is happening in the mind of victims trapped.
You can read through the list of red flags for trafficking . That is a great start, but please don’t stop there! Polaris Project has a very informative resource identifying the 25 different typologies of trafficking in America. The World Without Exploitation’s website has loads of stories and stats to better educate yourselves and your communities. Help us restore lives at the annual “Isn’t She Worth It?” Top Golf Tournament benefiting the Cherished House.
Rebekah Charleston’s story is one that is unfortunately too common. After 10 years and no way to escape from multiple traffickers on her own, it was the federal authorities that ultimately provided her a path to freedom and safety. Given a new lease on life, she hasn’t shied away from her experiences, instead she has used it as a source of inspiration and a way to educate others on the prevalent world of human trafficking in America. Through her work as a consultant with the National Justice Training Center and executive director of Valiant Hearts, Rebekah has dedicated her life to preventing others from having to experience what she did. In the years that have passed, Rebekah has won numerous awards for her work, including 2016’s Survivor Leader Award; has been featured by numerous news outlets such as Deadline Crimes and TEDx; received a master’s degree in criminal justice; and has given birth to her loving son. Follow Valiant Hearts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and visit its website: www.valianthearts.org.