When it comes to human trafficking, Debra Brown wants to help save everyone affected by the horrible crimes. And she means everyone — nobody needing help should ever fall through the cracks.
Brown, the executive director and founder of Pillars of Hope, was one of many from the group on hand Saturday at the downtown Vallejo Farmers’ Market to raise awareness for human trafficking. Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.
Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide – including the Bay Area. There were 673 cases of human trafficking reported by 22 agencies in 2017, according to a 2019 report by the City of San Francisco. The largest number of cases were of individuals who were young women of color. Thirty-three percent of the cases in the United States came from the Bay Area.
On Saturday, Brown had many people coming up to her booth asking for information. Onlookers near the market also watched a demonstration in the middle of Georgia and Marin streets as members of Pillars of Hope took red sand obtained from the Red Sand Project and then placed it inside cracks in the street to symbolize nobody getting left behind.
Brown said many of the victims she has helped over the years call her “Mama.”
“It’s rewarding today to help someone for the better and helping them find a good working job,” Brown said. “It makes me feel great when I know they aren’t going back to that life.”
Brown said that the majority of the victims she has dealt with are around the age of 17 but the ages usually vary from 12 to 18. Once, she even had to help a victim that was only 8.
The founder of Pillars of Hope said that most of the time the victims don’t work in their own city, because it’s “too dangerous for them in their own city as they may be recognized.”
“We find Vallejo victims not just in other parts of the Bay Area, but around the nation,” Brown said. “We had to give a plane ride to one girl to fly back home from Georgia.”
Once the victims come back into the hands of Pillars of Hope to be rehabilitated, Brown said the first month can be very tough as there is a major trust issue.
“The first 30 days they really just want to feel safe and loved,” Brown said. “The problem is we need more housing facilities for these victims, not less. In a typical restoration facility there will be 36 children in cabins and the restoration center kind of acts like a school. There is a PTSD trauma-informed therapist on the staff that can help with life-skill programs.”
Brown said hearing the stories of the victims is something that is never easy to hear.
“You think you’ve heard it all in this world and then you hear this,” Brown said, shaking her head. “This crime is not based on any background or race. Everyone is targeted. It’s usually someone down on their luck and someone gets friendly with them. Very few make it out of the life. Even if someone wants to get out, they are sometimes killed by their purchaser or exploiter.”
“That’s why we really need to make a difference here,” Brown said.
Some have already been saved. According to Brown, the group recently helped a victim get a job and then went a step further as a car to transport her to the job was donated by Eric and Debbie Amara.
Also helping out at the awareness event was Kristine Cataldo, who serves on the advisory board for Pillars of Hope. She primarily helps out with the education, social media and grant writing.
“It feels amazing to be a voice for people that sometimes don’t have a voice,” Cataldo said. “I have a daughter that is 17, so this issue really hits home with me. “The one thing I’ve learned over the years is these victims, once they are away from the crimes and safe, they are so grateful for your help and they are so easy to love. You really want to help with the transition of helping guide them into the light.”
Cataldo said the biggest misconception with human trafficking is that it only happens in certain places. Vallejo is known to have human trafficking along Sonoma Boulevard, but Cataldo said the crimes have no boundaries.
“I think some people don’t realize that it can happen right in your own backyard,” Cataldo said. “It can happen in a massage parlor or a nail salon. And it’s not just sex trafficking, a lot of times it’s labor trafficking.”
Pillars of Hope promises that if one wants to help save someone, the location will be undisclosed to keep perpetrators from finding their victims. An individual plan will address each young person’s physical, psychological, educational and spiritual needs. Each person will make the transition to independent living. The group also offers many daily activities designed to nurture the body and mind in a healthy and therapeutic way.
Pillars of Hope said in order to help someone with human trafficking, it is advised not to approach them on the street for fear they may get in more trouble and be put in more danger if a slave owner finds out they are trying to escape the life. Instead, one can call Pillars of Hope at (925) 457-3977. They can also visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone seeking help can call the national number of 1-888-373-7888.