🙎🏽‍♀️Life at the Center: Can we help the Girls? 🙎🏽‍♀️ Vol. 72, July 2019

Pearl Haven…. A sanctuary for pearls? Here pearls = girls, each one unique, beautiful, a treasure. Why would these unique, beautiful, treasured girls need a haven?

Truth is, these girls have not been treasured, honored or respected. The girls for whom this haven is being built have known abandonment, coercion, appropriation, exploitation, shame, in fact: slavery. They come from every economic bracket, every ethnicity. And it’s happening just below the surface of our “everything is fine” tropical paradise.

The emergence of Pearl Haven is underway. Neela and I got to tour the construction site last week… and to imagine the possibilities for a better life for teenage girls on this island who have been forced into sex trafficking.

I want to tell you about the woman behind the campaign to build Pearl Haven for the girls, and I want you to watch the video of her TedTalk at the bottom of this letter. Her video brought me to tears… and it inspired me to feel that YES, we can do something about this problem. This woman – Jessica Munoz – astonishes me.

She’s not some good fairy who came floating down to wave her magic wand and make it all better. She’s a heroine because she’s a real life person, just like us. She told me she feels like quitting several times a week, and she regularly asks, “Really, God? THIS is what I’m supposed to be doing?” And she persists anyway. Right through all the heart-breaking times, the not-enough-sleep times, the so-frustrated-she-could-scream times.

Jessica Munoz is LIT UP, and I write this story to inspire us to fight for what is right and good in this world – with even a tiny fraction of the fire she’s fueled by. Jessica thinks she just has a “justice gene in her DNA” that makes it so that she can’t NOT do what she does: helping to create a place of healing for young girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking and now need to re-enter society and their families.

A nurse practitioner for the last 15 years, Jessica became alerted to the plight of these young girls a decade ago in the emergency room. “These girls came in with obvious signs that something was terribly wrong, and we were not asking the right questions or screening for this type of trauma.”  Reporting was minimal and guidelines were ill-defined. “I felt a strong drive to do something.”

Jessica gathered a group of concerned and passionate friends and founded the non-profit organization Ho’ola Na Pua, from ho’o “to make”, from ola “health, life”, from nā pua “the flowers / the children”. The organization’s name means “new life for our children”.  Often times girls as young as 9 years old are being forced to turn “tricks” up to 10-12-15 + times a night.

The Ho’ola Na Pua team of volunteers identified many services needed for providing a full continuum of care for trafficked children in Hawaii. Several key elements were not yet in place. One of the key missing services was a residential treatment program for teenage girls who have been sexually exploited.

For the last nine years, Jessica has been donating 60 hours a week to this endeavor, while holding a full-time job as an ER nurse practitioner. In her determination to bring the Pearl Haven project into reality, she’s just recently reduced her nursing hours to part time, but continues to work pro-bono for Ho’ola Na Pua.

Ho’ola Na Pua secured a long term lease on a 12-acre site in rural Oahu where they will be able to provide comprehensive treatment and wrap around services. Up to 32 girls, ages 11-18, will eventually be able to reside and heal there, with state-of-the-art therapeutic practices, learning gardening and cooking skills, partaking in equine therapy, and continuing their schooling. Re-imagining their story.

The girls will be welcomed by Buddy, a dog the squatters abandoned when they left the premises. They will understand why he remains a bit skittish from all the abuse he suffered before. Yet he is also very loving, still willing to give and receive affection. The staff has named him Buddy and consider him the Protector of Pearl Haven!

Pearl Haven itself stands as a metaphor for the work it seeks to accomplish with these girls. The place started out on a gorgeous site with lovely buildings. Ignored by its creators, the place fell into the hands of squatters who defaced and defiled the structures, while weeds overtook the grounds. When Neela and I looked at it we saw a) the strong bones of a beautiful structure, b) all the ill-treatment it received for years, and c) an incredibly promising future of growth into even greater beauty and grace.

Outrage drives Jessica. Like her own heroes for justice – Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and Corrie Ten Boom – Jessica has found ways to harness her rage. Knowing that we are a country built on the concept of freedom, she refuses to stand by while her younger ‘sisters’ are enslaved: she and her team are creating safe space for them. And knowing how many resources are available in this nation, she’s asking for our help in restoring health and dignity to these victimized children.

Jessica’s biggest piece of preventative advice to parents is:  “Be in tune with your kids. Get off the phone. TALK with your daughters and sons. Kids at the biggest risk are the ones not in connection with their families – traffickers try to fill in all the holes.”

And stand up for any child who is being abused by their father, brother, uncle, grandfather, mother. Don’t look away, especially if this has happened to you. Protect them, get help. Stop the pattern.

She also reminds us that trauma has happened to many of us. Recognize that trauma impacts everyone in unique ways. If you find yourself violated or exploited, it’s important to say something to someone – holding it in will not help or protect you.

When I asked Jessica why there was such high demand for these girls, she told me pornography is the biggest driving force: “Visualization becomes actualization,” and that today’s pornography is turning more and more violent with younger and younger subjects. And it’s not just “weird, scary-looking guys” who engage in it. It’s our everyday next door neighbors, clerks, lawyers, doctors – all sorts of ordinary-seeming people buy sex. How other human beings can treat girls or boys in this demeaning way completely baffles Jessica.

Yet all of us can do something to help. First we can raise our own awareness of the problem. Next we can look for seeds of it in ourselves, our families, our friends, our neighbors, our community. As Jonny, who’s supervising the Pearl Haven construction site, asks other men, “Where are your eyes looking, brother?”

Pearl Haven is more than just a dream, and not yet a reality. It’s $4.5 million into its reconstruction process, needing another $4.5 million and thousands more volunteer hours to complete this ginormous renovation effort. Let’s do our part!

Dancing in Joy and resting in stillness with you,

Renée Tillotson

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