As I sat across the table from these incarcerated trafficked girls, I found myself staring into the eyes of children. As a mother lays her eyes upon her children, I laid my eyes upon these girls and fell in love instantly. Immediately, I didn’t notice the matching oversized gray sweatpants and shirts they wore. What I saw were curious faces, guarded bodies, and eyes that were yearning for love and acceptance. They were reading my body language and listening to the tone in my voice for deception, lies, and a single ounce of illegitimacy. Trust is the first thing that broke them, and they will do their best to ensure that trust will not be what breaks them again. If I am going to be effective they have to see, as they look into my eyes, that I am someone they can take a chance to rebuild trust.
I begin by introducing myself and immediately tell my story of trafficking. They have to know that I am not the typical volunteer that wants to help them change their lives. I do not have pity for them and I am not there for the sole purpose to make myself feel better for contributing to society. Even if the prior volunteers didn’t believe those things about themselves, these girls could read their true reasons for being there. They can see deeper into your motives than you can see for yourself. That is how they survived on the streets. That is how I survived on the streets. And the elephant in the room was just that, “Was I there for them or was I there for myself?” What would they see in me that I may not see in myself?
This is why it is extremely important that we all work on our stuff. Everywhere we go we bring our stuff with us. I walked around for years in denial that my stuff affected my everyday life. I pretended to be like the Christian ladies I sat with at church. I was desperate to be good, the opposite of what I felt about myself. But my past kept messing it up with its filth. There was no good deed I did that wasn’t like a filthy rag, because it was infected by my pain and mistakes of my past. When I kept trying to be “good” and ignore the mess that is within me, I could not be legitimate in the eyes of those who have been wounded as trafficked girls have been wounded. Authenticity is the most important part that is missing from the work of those who have not confronted their own pain.
When I opened my mouth and spoke the words from my past I showed them my mess. I confessed I am just like them, a person yearning for love and searching for how to be able to trust someone again with my heart. When I was finished there a was a moment of silence as they stared back trying to take it all in. And without warning, every single girl began to spill out their stories of pain and rape and neglect. It was beautiful, yet overwhelming. They felt my authenticity and, in an instant, decided to take a chance to see if love wins for them too.
I’ve learned a lot from these girls and they have learned from me. We teach each other about life as we explore the effects that trafficking had on us. There have been many moments of laughter and also moments of tears. And every time I visit I have to leave these girls incarcerated and alone in a place where criminals are caged. Girls who have been victimized are left being victimized again for a crime that was committed under the duress of their trafficker. I wish we didn’t have to meet under these circumstances, but this is the way it is.
In part three I will discuss this type of re-victimization in more depth, but before I go I want to leave you with an image. Close your eyes and imagine a child’s eyes. Their eyes look back at you as you walk away. They are filled with terror as they wonder, “Will she come back? Please take me with you!” They ache, and it takes every ounce of strength for them to keep themselves from running back to you giving you one last hug. Your feet feel like cement blocks as you force yourself to walk towards the prison gate to leave. You know the girls feel like they have been abandoned again as they also cling onto hope that maybe this time might not be like all the others. As I drive away, I leave with the image of their aching terror-filled eyes that haunts me until I see them again.
By Toni McKinley, LPC