MaLisa Johnson Umstead knew that human trafficking existed, but she believed, like many, that the “problem” was limited to areas outside the borders of the United States, in remote places like Cambodia and Thailand.
Research quickly showed, however, that hundreds of thousands of American children are trafficked into the sex trade each year, and yet in 2011, there were fewer than 100 beds across the country waiting for them upon discovery and removal from the trade.
In 2012, MaLisa Umstead had a powerful vision. In an effort to address the enormous void in resources for victims of sex trafficking, she founded A Safe Place. MaLisa recognized the lack of supportive and trauma-informed services and housing for these victims and knew there had to be a better way to address this crisis in our community. Over the course of the year, MaLisa got to work. She assembled a Board of Directors, developed victim services, and began fundraising for the first restorative home for victims in Wilmington.
In December of 2012, MaLisa and her team’s vision had come full circle. The FBI referred the first resident to A Safe Place. She was a young teen mother who had been trafficked for three years beginning at the age of fourteen. After working with the first resident and others who followed, there were three stark realizations that came to light. The three elements that would serve as the cornerstone for our organization’s future were:
- Restorative work goes beyond simply providing a safe house and three meals a day.
- The need for housing is greatest for young women and mothers exiting the life of sex slavery.
- The need for victim services and outreach in own community was both desperate and unmet.
As the community began to learn about A Safe Place, more victims came forward. A Safe Place expanded its victim services to include one-on-one counseling, case management, vocational consulting and – most importantly – a drop-in Outreach Center for victims. Because the mission was always to provide direct services and build lasting and restorative relationships with victims, the Outreach Center became the true heart of the organization.
While the Outreach Center remains the core of A Safe Place,another critical accomplishment was our 12 bed Emergency Shelter, which opened for victims in January 2018. Survivors are not only provided with a safe place to sleep but are also offered an array of therapies to help them begin the healing process. While the program has evolved over the past three years, the goal remains to give survivors an option to leave “the life” by providing a safe place and building trusting relationships. The relationships that we build and nurture within these walls are the heart and soul of this organization — and ultimately, what has the most positive impact on the future of survivors.
At our Campus, survivors have access to individual therapy, trauma groups, substance abuse groups and alternative therapies as a part of the new Trauma Focused Immersion Program. Both staff and volunteers also provide a variety of activities and life skills, and the Campus even has a Wellness Center for women to exercise. Those who are still “in the life” are able to come in off of the streets take a warm shower, wash their clothes, enjoy a meal and be in a community with other women who have been in similar situations. Program staff plan fun opportunities for members to experience during the day as well, like visiting the aquarium, attending a pottery class, or enjoying the beach for the day.
While our programs grew, so did the need for fundraising. The annual “A Day in the Life” luncheon is one of the best times of the year at A Safe Place. Our community gathers together to celebrate the work of A Safe Place and the tangible impact to our community. It is always encouraging to see so many community members and leaders join in one room, hear from our guest speakers, make a contribution and leave feeling inspired.
Regardless of where our members are on their journey, A Safe Place will continue to advocate for these women and serve as a beacon of hope in our community!