BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — Erin Futch rolled up her sleeves and got to work in the kitchen of Mountain Brook Baptist Church right next to a girl who looked like she was about her age.
They started talking that morning, swapping stories. Turns out both of them were 22 and had played softball in high school — not only that, they’d played against each other.
But then their stories had gone vastly different directions.
Erin Futch had gone to college.
The girl beside her had fallen victim to sex trafficking.
“That was a really poignant moment for Erin,” said her mother Sherrie who on the first two Fridays of every month helps with the Alabama church’s ministry to the residents of The WellHouse, a St. Clair County-based refuge for women rescued from the trafficking industry.
“I know for me before I knew much of anything about sex trafficking, you think it’s somewhere else — around the world, in big cities,” Sherrie Futch said. “But it’s so much closer to home than we think. We have a lot in common with these ladies. If it wasn’t but for a few different circumstances in my own life, something like what happened to them could’ve happened to me.”
Ashley Anderson, development director for The WellHouse, said young women can get pulled into trafficking so easily.
“It’s not the Hollywood picture of what a trafficker or a pimp looks like — in real life, this is a guy who’s quite charming and has a fantastic way of being able to lure these children in and the adults as well,” Anderson said, noting that the grooming process can often begin as a preteen.
“Many who come to us also have a history of childhood sexual abuse, so they were recruited [by sex traffickers] when they were most vulnerable,” Anderson said. “You may find that 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who were abused and think leaving is a better option than their unhealthy home will run away onto the street and into the arms of a trafficker.”
And it isn’t long before they find themselves in slavery, Anderson said.
That’s why The WellHouse and other ministries like it exist — ministries like Hope Haven in Summerdale, Ala., which executive director Donna Armstrong said was born in 2012 out of national Woman’s Missionary Union’s Project Help that focused on fighting human exploitation.
“Ladies in our WMU became very interested in what we could do to help, being located so close to the I-10 corridor and ports along that corridor,” said Armstrong, a member of First Baptist Church in Summerdale. “It’s a heavily trafficked area and we asked for help in figuring out what to do.”
After attending a seminar on the topic, they organized and set out to explore what their area needed most.
“At that time The WellHouse was there and doing great work in St. Clair County but within a 250-mile radius of our area there was nothing,” Armstrong recounted. “We determined at that time our best efforts would be to create a shelter.”
And the eventual result was Hope Haven, a six-bed, faith-based shelter for women 18 and over who are victims of human trafficking.
“In January 2014 our first resident came through our doors and we’ve had numerous ones since then,” Armstrong said.
Women can stay at Hope Haven as long as they need to, but the goal is to move them to a longer-term recovery program or back home with a family member within 60 days if possible, she said.
“It’s been very humbling and rewarding to be a part of this ministry,” Armstrong said. “It’s not like I had a heart for victims of human trafficking when this all began — what I had was a heart for Christ and this is the area He laid out for me to serve. I went into that field that He gave me and over time I have developed quite a passion for these women.”
That sort of openhearted willingness is exactly what these women need from churches all around the state, Anderson said, noting, “At The WellHouse, churches and individuals have helped us tremendously.”
That help ranges from activities like the cooking ministry of Mountain Brook Baptist Church to collection drives for needed items like paper towels, toiletry items and canned goods.
Both Anderson and Armstrong said their ministries greatly benefit by their volunteers being able to share with congregations about their ministries at church services, conferences and retreats.
“Until we raise awareness, human trafficking will continue to be a crime that’s hidden in plain sight,” Armstrong said.
The WellHouse also needs volunteer mentors for the women as they prepare to transition out from the shelter into normal life, Anderson said. “They are assigned a social coach — someone who is interested in being a part of the healing process, someone who is going to walk alongside them, do Bible study, be a really close mentor and friend.”
All of this comes together to rescue and redeem women and fight the atrocities of trafficking, she said.
“While it’s not a new topic, it’s a new conversation, and I’m glad people are starting to have it within their congregations,” Anderson said. “We kind of all live in our little worlds and have tunnel vision sometimes. I can’t blame people for not knowing what they don’t know. But once you know, let’s work together to eradicate it.”
For more information about The WellHouse, visit the-wellhouse.org. For more information about Hope Haven, visit hopehavenal.com.