My name is Sara Cozad and my husband Stuart and I are coming on four years of fostering (read Sara’s blog from last year about fostering her sons!). We’ve fostered 17 kids and adopted our two sons, ages 13 and 7. I work as a foster parent co-trainer in Washington State and am slowly (but surely!) working on a website that explains the foster care licensing process in every state (fosteringourfuture.site)
At this point, my husband and I only foster sex-trafficked teens and LGBTQ+ youth- two demographics of kids in care that are unfairly overrepresented. We just had our 15-year-old foster son reunify after several awesome months with him. Right now, we’re in the middle of a move down to San Diego so we’re not currently accepting new placements during this transition.
I think the hardest part about foster care is navigating the bureaucracy of the state. For us, the parenting part of foster care is easy (most days) but having a crazy amount of social worker turnover or seeing balls getting dropped regularly is hard. Fostering has given me the gift of patience… It’s taught me that there is no point in worrying about things I have no control over. It’s made me learn how to live in the present and never take a day for granted.
For me, there is no better feeling in the world than seeing a parent overcome so much and reunify with their child(ren). People constantly ask me how I deal with a foster child who leaves our home to reunify, and I can say honestly that it’s my favorite part. If you are able to form a close bond and relationship with the parents of your foster children, then there doesn’t really need to be a goodbye. I just went out for ice cream with our teen and his mom last week. And we talk on the phone or text almost daily. We actually talk to or see the majority of our previous placements and their families. I love that our family isn’t confined to the walls of a home, but instead spreads far and wide through dozens of people across numerous states. Just because a foster child leaves your home it doesn’t mean it has to be Goodbye.
Over the years my mentality has switched from “I’m fostering a child” to “I’m doing my part to foster love and connection between this child and their parents.” My job is to be the biggest cheerleader in this parent’s life. This switch has resulted in closer connections with birth parents, less stress for the child during the transition home, and ongoing relationships with these families for years to come. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, but I’ve found that more often than not, it is. And it can be so, so good.
For our family, we love fostering teens. Babies and toddlers are super cute but our experience with teens has been pretty incredible. Many of them are at a place where they can talk through their trauma and past experiences in a way where I can meet their needs in a tangible way. Before any sort of healing comes, you need connection. I’ve personally found it so much easier to connect with teens than younger children. Going to the skate park, bonding over pop-punk, and late-night milkshake runs are my jam. More often than not, these teens just need a support person who shows up every day and wholeheartedly believes in them.
Teens in foster care come to you at a point where every single decision can be extremely life altering. As a foster parent, you have a finite amount of time to really help them and help them get (or stay) on the right path. In our state, Washington State college tuition is free for youth who have been in foster care at any point in time after their 13th birthday- even if they reunify or get adopted. So many teens I’ve met don’t even know that college is an opportunity available to them. Being able to help teens set realistic long-term goals is a huge step in getting them to feel like they have some control over their life.
When I’m leading a foster parent training, I hear a lot of working parents verbalize their fear about the number of appointments foster children have. Fostering teens is so much more convenient for working foster parents. I would love to go back to work full time at some point and after fostering so many kids, I know that teens typically have the least demanding schedule. Past teens we’ve had have been able to take the bus to appointments, stay home alone, and set up their own social worker visits. I want to mention this because there are so many misconceptions about teens in care that they are always “troubled” or “dangerous”, and this have proven to be false to my husband and I. So many teens are just that- teens. They’re normal kids in a really shitty situation. And more often than not they really, really would love to have a family who gives them a sense of normalcy.
Throughout all of this, I think my greatest joy has been the kids and the families I’ve met on this journey. I’ve gotten to love so hard, and so often.
I’m Hallie Graves from Austin, Texas, and I’m a 33-year old single foster mom. For my day (and let’s be honest, often night) job, I’m a trial attorney for a small litigation firm. I also love speaking and writing and chatting with people about foster care, Broadway shows, Austin, politics, and basically everything! I currently have a 6 month old baby girl in my care, and she’s my third placement.
I’ve learned four things from my first 18 months as a foster parent.
I’ve been in the foster care world for 17 years, since I was in high school. I thought I’d seen it all - I’ve been a CASA, an attorney for kids, a mentor for teen girls, a NICU volunteer, and a board member of local nonprofits involved in advocacy for vulnerable kids and families. But now I’m a parent - to other people’s children. I LOVE the parenting part; caring for these children is my greatest joy. I’ve got a lot of experience with infants and kids and feel pretty comfortable there. But foster care isn’t regular parenting. It’s parenting on a roller coaster, with lots of other people involved. I’m still processing all that I’ve learned over the last year, but here are a few of my takeaways 18 months into this gig:
1. I am not in control. Of anything, ever. I never thought of myself as a person who needed control. I like to be pretty go with the flow (enneagram 7). But once I started caring for tiny vulnerable people with no say in their future, it got a lot harder. My first placement was a four-day old baby boy who I parented for 11.75 months. His future was uncertain most of that time, and I had to learn that I can advocate with open hands to whatever is best for him. Fostering is an in-your-face reminder every day that you are not in control (of anything).
2. I can survive loss. When people learn that I am a foster parent, the #1 response is some version of, “Oh, I could NEVER do that! I’d get too attached, and would never be able to say goodbye to the kids!” That’s a normal human reaction: to turn away, push away from something that seems very painful. But here’s the thing- I am a secure, emotionally mature (mostly :)) adult who can withstand deep loss. I do get too attached. It’s critically important that my kids attach completely to me so they learn secure, healthy attachment. I can be the adult who suffers a loss so that these kids have a shot at a more secure future. Saying goodbye to my first foster son a week before he turned 1 was the hardest thing I have ever done, and it brings me to tears even now. But these kids deserve someone to get into the suffering with them; to be willing to experience great loss because they are absolutely worth it.
3. I am not the hero, and they are not the villain. The savior mentality is hard to avoid, especially when outsiders frequently applaud me for being “a saint.” I assure you, I’m not. But it illustrates a bigger problem to me. I’ve learned that there are no heroes in foster care, and there are no villains. It’s easy for me to sit here, a white, educated, English-speaking woman with enough money and an unending support system and say that a parent should not have done something that resulted in removal of children. It’s not that simple. I have never met a parent who woke up one day and decided to make an unsafe environment for their child. Most of the time, it’s the result of systemic forces and generational barriers that are incredibly difficult to overcome - poverty, untreated mental illness, addiction, mass incarceration, teen pregnancy, unavailable affordable housing, and more. I’ve looked into their eyes, filled with desperation to parent their child. I’ve been given gifts they received at their baby showers to prepare for the child that they are not allowed to parent. And above all, I’ve learned that it’s not up to me to decide if someone is worthy of my help, compassion, love, or grace. It is my job to offer it every time, in every way I can.
4. It takes a village. Parenting in any capacity requires a village, certainly. But foster care requires a specific, deeply-invested kind of village. I don’t think it’s that different from doing something like an overseas mission or being in the military, in terms of the support needed. Foster parents are on the front lines, and we need 10 people for every 1 foster family to be in the trenches, committed to their family’s flourishing. I am so thankful for my village. It’s a rag-tag combination of three groups of people: (1) family and friends that I educated about foster care and brought along with me on the journey; (2) my existing community groups, like small groups, bible study, book club; and (3) other foster parents. Each group has a slightly different role. I lean on other foster parents - especially other single foster parents - to say “I get it” or “this is what we did in that situation.” I lean on my family and friends for practical, tangible support like babysitting and hanging with me when my kid is asleep at 6:15pm on a Friday night. And my existing community groups have surrounded me with encouragement and prayer and whatever else I need. I’ve found that my job is to figure out what specifically I need and ask a specific person for that specific help. So often, we don’t ask for help and then are disappointed when people don’t show up. I’ve given myself permission to acknowledge that I took on this role AND I need help.
What’s next for me? I hope to continue fostering as long as God allows me to. And I’d love to encourage you on that journey, too.
Writing and Photography by: Whitney Runyon, co-founder of The Archibald Project
There are moments in our lives that define us, set the course of our future and if we’re lucky humble us in a way that keep us grounded in our beliefs. For me, one of these moments was walking through a Thai city dump with a Burmese refugee who has dedicated his life to supporting vulnerable children and families.
I met Daniel in a Thai boarder town. Our team spent the previous night in Bangkok, walking the streets of the red light district looking women in the eyes and wondering their story. Why were they there? Was this a personal choice? Were they trafficked? Was a pimp watching us nearby? Were these women abused? Were they Thai or Burmese? Were they promised a “better life” and then shipped off to be someone’s instant gratification?…
And then we woke up, bright and early, drove halfway across town and boarded a prop plane hoping to meet a man who might give us some answers.
This man’s name is Daniel. Daniel fled Myanmar (or Burma) with his brother and spent 4 years in a refuge camp. Upon leaving the camp Daniel had 2 choices, he could go to the big city or he could stay in the boarder town and work with his people. I’m thankful he chose the later.
After spending a few days with Daniel and learning about all of his life work with Global Child Advocates he drove me to the dump and shared that it was this particular place which caused him to stay and work with vulnerable children. You see, Daniel has a civil engineer degree, but after one day in the dump, talking and working with Burmese migrants and refugees, he decided to stay and work to protect these people.
Along with GCA, Daniel and his team build relationships with vulnerable community members in order to keep children in their birth family, help abandoned children find foster families who are of the same ethnicity and keep kids from being trafficked.
Daniel prepared me for the dump. He prepared me for the smell, and the sadness. But what I wasn’t prepared for was watching the GCA team jump right in and serve these beautiful people. They sat on piles of trash, dug through the new dump truck’s stash helping the community members find a treasure they could clean up and hopefully sell in the market. The staff didn’t care about germs; they weren’t afraid to touch the people and sit and drink tea with them.
I started talking to Daniel and he paused, “it’s not fair” he mustered out through holding back tears. This wasn’t fair. People should not live like this. People, real people, should not live in trash! But they do and they are often unprotected leaving them and their children vulnerable. Traffickers wait to prey upon them. But, the Global Child Advocates team is there, building relationships and informing people that there is another way. They do not have to sell their children to make it in life.
After traveling to dozens of developing countries, this day in the dump, watching the GCA team work and serve their countrymen, humbled me to my core. I hope and pray this day stays with me, my heart, soul and actions for the rest of my life. And I’m so excited to share this day, and many others learning alongside Daniel with you all in our upcoming film of The Advocates, Episode 6: Thailand. Keep an eye out to have your heart impacted by this odd and passionate Burmese man named Daniel.
Written by Ashlee Heiligman, Global Director of Global Child Advocates, Photography by The Archibald Project and Global Child Advocates
10 years ago I met a little girl begging on the streets of Mae Sot, Thailand. I didn’t know it then, but this little girl would change my life forever.
When kids cannot go home to family members, how does GCA get involved?
When being reunified with family is not an option, we have an MOU with the government, which allows us to recruit and screen long-term foster families through the local church because there is not a foster care system in Thailand. We equip and prepare families and ensure the placement is a good fit for a child through bonding sessions. We monitor placements as often as needed and provide resources as necessary.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face when working with survivors?
Childhood trauma changes the way a child’s brain develops and affects how they interpret the world around them. They push back and struggle to receive the love that will ultimately heal them. It just takes time and patience to help them see we are for them in every way. It’s also extremely difficult when we are unable to control the outcomes for survivors. Because we work with the government, sometimes victims in our care are moved too quickly or without our input on where they should go.
Daniel recently visited two girls in Yangon who had been in our care for a couple years. They are from Myanmar but the Thai government referred them to us. Their trauma was intense. They witnessed their father murder their mother and once he was arrested, their aunt shipped them off to the nearest orphanage. When dad got out of jail, he came for them and the orphanage didn’t ask questions. Both were sexually abused for years until they couldn’t take it anymore. They ran away together, and with no legal identity they ended up in government custody, and were brought to us.
While in our care, they were loved unconditionally within relationships of trust. They began to understand their incredible value in the eyes of God and they were both thriving in that. The older sister was one of our first artisans in Sojourn Studio and had recently taken up sewing too. Her heart was transformed and she was in such a healthy place, that she stood up one day in our team meeting to share about how she had changed. She shared that she actually did want to see her dad again someday, just to tell him that she had forgiven him for all that he had done.
Several months later, their cases were reviewed by Myanmar’s child welfare department and it was determined that both should return to Myanmar to receive proper legal papers. They are now kept in a large government shelter and they feel like it is a prison. They said it is a mess of chaos, trauma, and instability. This was Daniel and his team’s 2nd visit to check-in on their care to make sure they are safe and to see if they could return to Mae Sot. However, the directors were not receptive to working with us on a family-based solution. Daniel said that GCA won’t give up and will keep advocating for these girls’ safety and their futures.
With how complex human trafficking is and the work you are doing, what motivates you to keep going when the work you are doing is filled with heart break?
The stories of healing and restoration are my main drive. The only way I cope with the realities of human suffering that we’re all exposed to every day, is by taking action. Even if it’s incredibly small compared to the scope of need, I just feel compelled to do something.
Whether it’s finding an ethical organization in Syria and Yemen to support, praying for cyclone victims, or empowering our team in Thailand, I can’t just feel the pain of others and move on to the next post. It weighs too heavy on me.
Jesus gets all the credit for that though. His love makes my heart feel their pain.
Are there ways that people can get involved in supporting GCA?
Empower survivors and moms by purchasing ceramic jewelry from our social enterprise, Sojourn Studio!
Support our work.
Tell us a little bit about yourself! What made you want to get involved with this work? What lead you here?
Seeing images and hearing stories of human suffering and injustice has always had a huge impact on me, even as a child. I remember seeing images on the news in the 90’s of emaciated kids trapped in Romanian orphanages, and I couldn’t get them out of my head. I didn’t know how, but I knew I wanted my life to somehow be part of the solution for kids like that.
After earning my Bachelors in Social Work, I worked with C.A.S.A. and a Residential Treatment Center for teens in the juvenile system. At 25, I was invited into a discipleship program with 3-months abroad, and saying yes, changed my life. In Thailand, my heart came alive despite the dark realities we were exposed to. Meeting one little girl in Mae Sot led me to sell all of my stuff and move there a year later… That was 10 years ago!
Tell us about Global Child Advocates and the work you are doing there!
I now work for Global Child Advocates, which is a team of Jesus followers, who seek to ensure that every child has someone safe that they belong to long-term. What began as a small rescue mission, taking in children who had been abused or trafficked, has matured over the last 10 years towards family-based care. We recognized through experience that children, especially those affected by trauma, need much more than shelter and a family-like environment. They need a loving family of their own.
We work in extremely marginalized communities where many children are at high risk of trafficking and abandonment. We come around families who are struggling the most and become their advocates and allies, training them in child protection and providing resources to help them stay together.
When prevention is not possible, we call on local government to respond in communities that are otherwise unheard. We provide safe refuge for victims in our short-term Emergency Shelter during the assessment and investigation phase. Our goal for every survivor is to be reunified with safe family members or placed into a long-term foster family.
I can't even begin to imagine how hard these stories are. What in a child's life has led them to being trafficked?
While there are definitely evil people everywhere and there are parents who abuse and outright sell their children for money, this is not the norm. Most parents instinctively love their children. It is how we are wired.
What we’ve encountered most often is that parents are tricked by traffickers posing as an orphanage or boarding house director, aid workers, or they come offering a better life and opportunities for education and work in Bangkok. Some desperate parents even know that if they tell a good-intentioned NGO that they’re going to sell their child, that NGO will do anything to prevent trafficking. They’ll take that child and raise them in a ‘much better’ environment than the parent could ever provide.
Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable, those with low self-esteem, no family support, and lacking attachment. Minors living in orphanages or those who’ve been removed from their families are much more likely to be voluntarily trafficked because of their unmet emotional needs. Romeo pimps woo impressionable, insecure teens into loving relationships they can’t resist, only to use that psychological control against them later.
That is so heart breaking… Is there ever the chance for reunifying kids and survivors with family members and parents?
Yes! When a child comes into emergency care, we gather all essential information possible from other agencies involved and from the child. For older children and teens, activities like mobility mapping can help them process their life story and identify places children have lived and places they’ve been harmed. Children can participate too. Our team recently took our Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) and Emergency Shelter kids to a local waterfall and a little boy in our care said, “I used to live over there!”. From that small statement, our team later took his picture around and they were able to find relatives and unravel his story! He was also able to tell us who he did and did not feel safe with.
As a mother and a former teacher, I have always had a passion for working with youth and families. When I first heard about sex trafficking, I found myself in denial that something like this could even be real. Ashamedly, for a while, I CHOSE to believe that it wasn’t happening in the United States… and certainly not in Central Texas where I was teaching and raising my own children.
Through further research about the realities of trafficking in my area, I couldn’t allow myself to sit idly by and pray that someone else would do something… I had to join in the fight and at least contribute in some capacity. I am now the Co-Founder and the Director of Education & Prevention with The Key2Free.
The Key2Free began in 2013 after the six original founders traveled with a team to Thessaloniki, Greece to learn about the global issue of human trafficking.The Key2Free provides tiered transition housing, education and therapeutic care for survivors of human trafficking… Services provided include: both residential & non-residential programs, professional counseling, case management, life skills classes, continuing education, mentoring and job training.
When people first hear about sex trafficking, most assume that children are abducted and then sold into the industry, when in fact traffickers are incredibly resourceful, convincing & manipulative when luring their potential victims. A victim’s heightened needs or perceived needs are not being met which causes the vulnerable to look elsewhere. By establishing a superficial relationship and using various techniques, the trafficker will gradually manipulate them into the commercial sex industry. They take time to familiarize themselves with the victim’s individual vulnerabilities such as shelter, food, attention, love, acceptance, friendship, money, etc., in order to convince the victim that those needs will be met by him/her.
There is always the hope that families could be reunified, even after something as traumatic as a child being trafficked. However, it is imperative that the circumstances and complex-compound trauma surrounding each individual case be evaluated. The recovery process is extensive and on-going. It is always beneficial for family members to seek assistance in order to best support the victim as well as provide themselves with the support that they need due to the risks of secondary trauma.
The Key2Free is currently developing a 3-tier residential program to meet the wide-variety of housing needs of the demographic we have the opportunity to serve. The ultimate goal is to work with each individual to meet quarterly benchmarks to “graduate” through each housing tier to achieve independent living readiness. Non-residential services like case management, mentoring, counseling, life skills classes, etc., are on-going services that we encourage clients to continue to pursue regardless of housing participation.
When working in this field it is easy to become overwhelmed, but the rewards far out-weigh the trials… the relationships we have the opportunity to develop with these brave women is a blessing and a privilege that we do not take lightly.
Written by Courtney Bolander, Founder of Radiant Hope
As I was exposed to the injustice of human trafficking around the world, a desire to go deeper into the heart of the vulnerable emerged.
I accidentally stumbled across the issue of human trafficking when doing some research eight years ago. After hours of reading stories, researching statistics, and learning as much as I could, I closed my laptop and knew in that moment that I had just discovered my passion. In the years that followed, I co-led an anti-human trafficking campaign, volunteered with organizations, and traveled the world to learn firsthand about human trafficking. I really wanted to tackle the root causes that led to a person becoming a victim of human trafficking. I found that so often, outside of poverty and mere survival, trafficking victims were being manipulated by their own pain and traumas. This is what I want to change.
Now, I live and work in Romania with my husband as we fight for these vulnerable children. Our goal at Radiant Hope is to create spaces where girls and women can find healing, belonging, and friendship. Ultimately, we want to reduce their vulnerability to injustice and prevent exploitation. We currently have three programs in Eastern Romania:
Flourish Groups: Trauma-informed small groups for girls living in government orphanages and at-risk situations
Cultivate: Ongoing training and support for local government departments and NGOs
Justice Collective: A collaborative network of NGOs in Romania and across Europe who are working to protect women and children
*Please note that the majority of the girls we work with are at-risk to trafficking and not survivors. We do have a few that are currently being exploited so we are working to change this reality for those girls.
In Romania, trafficking mostly stems from poverty, lack of opportunity, and unmet emotional and relational needs. It doesn’t matter if they are from a family or an orphanage, if a child has faced neglect, abuse or a toxic living environment, it’s extremely likely that their most basic human needs of safety, love and belonging have not been met. This makes them very easy to manipulate. An easy example is if the father has left the family, a trafficker will enter the picture and say, “I know your dad left you, but I would never do that to you. I will always be here. It’s you and me forever.”
While many of us are able to see through the lies, these children often have a low level of discernment because they’ve never been taught the difference between safe and unsafe people or healthy and unhealthy relationships.
Traffickers are able to provide a sense of love, belonging and individual attention. When you’ve grown up in a group or foster home, or have experienced neglect, you very rarely get the full attention of another person. You don’t get the experience of being deeply loved and cared for. Traffickers are really good at meeting these unmet needs and desires. Even the boys who are recruited to become pimps find a sense of family and belonging with the guys who are training them.
The chance of a child being reunified with family after being trafficked really depends on each child’s individual circumstances. Romania is currently making huge efforts to comply with EU standards by shutting down large institutions (orphanages). As a result, some children are being reunified with their families. However, in terms of trafficking, it’s more rare that they go back with their families. This could be because their families refuse to accept them, the family facilitated the trafficking or they were trafficked to another country and choose to stay there to take advantage of the opportunity to recover, find dignifying work, and have a fresh start.
Unfortunately where we live there are not many resources available in terms of recovery or specialized counseling. These kids are also typically very detached from their trauma so it’s difficult for them to process what’s happened to them in a realistic way. Because of their histories and the highly-sexualized culture that we’re in, it can be difficult for them to understand that what’s happening to them is wrong. Their captivity is psychological not physical.
While human trafficking is a horrible reality, we also must remember that there are people being exploited within a “gray area” that is equally as devastating. We have several girls in our midst that have either entered prostitution with a pimp or who have done so for survival or to simply feel loved and needed in this world. These girls are part of our program and they show up week in and week out to receive the love and safety that we provide. They are some of our most consistent participants. We feed them, stand with them during moments of crisis, and provide a different experience of connection than they receive elsewhere. It’s an honor to hold their hands, kiss their cheeks, and hug their precious bodies as we declare the truth that they are worthy and made for more.
We live in a very apathetic society, one that doesn’t see the urgency to pursue justice because they know that bureaucracy will stand in the way. In the moments when all hope seems lost, I just take a look into their eyes and am reminded of the declaration I made to myself a long time ago: not one of my girls. They are worth more and we are going to do everything in our power to see their restoration, healing and intended purpose become a reality.
To learn more about getting involved with Radiant Hope, visit our website! Any new recurring plans or one-time donations go directly towards our Romania Project. We are also looking for translators. If you or someone you know is a fluent Romanian speaker, we have an ongoing need for translation of materials to use in our groups and trainings.
Written by Bucky Buchstaber, Executive Director of Fly Fishing Collaborative
Throughout my life, I’ve always had a lot of compassion for children, especially for those who have been victims of trauma. As I dug deeper, I kept wondering how could I help these kids. I asked myself, “How can I, as a fly fisherman, move the needle of justice?”
While I was going through my discernment process, I met up with a good friend of mine. At the time he was learning how to build an amazing type of farm system called Aquaponics. Aquaponics farming combines two worlds: Aquaculture (raising fish) and Hydroponics (growing plants without soil). In the system, the fish create nutrients for the plants to grow, and the plants clean the water for the fish. It is a closed-loop system that constantly recycles the same water. I learned that this mini, self-enclosed ecosystem has the potential to be very beneficial in areas of the world where resources are limited.
Later that year when I was talking to my wife and brainstorming ways that I could potentially help others through fly fishing, she turned to me and nonchalantly said, “Why don’t we raise money through fly fishing to build farms?” As soon as the idea formed, I knew that this is what we were supposed to do. Yes, it was unconventional, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pursue it.
Out of this dream our non profit Fly Fishing Collaborative (FFC) was created as a way to fund the Aquaponics farms. Whether it was our elegant fly fishing wallets created by Saddleback Leather Company or guided fly fishing trips, people in our fly fishing community were eager to get involved and play a part in helping the vulnerable. At our auction, we celebrate that fly fishing can reach far beyond what it may seem at the surface; a person’s next fishing trip, or the fly they tie to catch their next fish, can positively impact the life of a human trafficking survivor.
When I first formed FFC and was trying to find people and places in the world that could benefit from a sustainable food source, I started to learn a lot about the orphan crisis.
The human trafficking industry capitalizes on people who are extremely vulnerable. The harsh reality is this: Human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the world. There are an estimated 9 million women and young girls caught in trafficking today; and many of them are sold because of a lack of resources. Often, a family’s low economic status is what causes a child to be commoditized and sold, and sometimes women sell themselves out of desperation to survive.
In some cases, people give away their children with the hope that they will have a better life when, in reality, the trafficker who tricked them was just posing as a factory worker or educator. Others are abducted from their villages, taken to brothels, and are never seen, or heard from, again.
We were overwhelmed with the realization that we could provide a new commodity, a sustainable resource, for poor communities so that they can prevent the women and children from being sold. We also realized that we could help sustain children’s homes and safe homes that are on the front lines of rescuing kids.
In early 2014, we threw caution to the wind, proclaimed our mission, and began fundraising to build aquaponics farms. By that November, we had raised enough for our first farm, and assembled a volunteer team to go to Northern Thailand. There, we established a farm for two safe homes that were caring for 120 children. During that build, we realized that our vision had turned into a reality. After that project was completed, we were even more motivated to move this mission forward.
Since 2014, the Fly Fishing Collaborative has established 10 farms in 8 countries around the world. We’ve built farms for impoverished villages, children’s homes, safe homes, and even schools to help supplement income for their scholarship programs. Each aquaponics farm is given to the home or orphanage that we build it for, but we always promise technical support for as long as they need it.
We have been so thrilled to be able to provide an ongoing supply of harvestable fish and vegetables for hundreds of kids around the world. What we didn't expect was that we were also providing a therapeutic activity for the kids to engage in. In many of the children’s homes that we build for, the kids partake in caring for the farm. We recently sat down with a director of a safe home who we built a farm for in Mexico City to discuss her vision for the farm. She shared her excitement about the opportunities that it will create for the girls. In her own words, “I feel like the aquaponics farm will help our girls develop the caring and nurturing they never received.” She is excited to use the farm as a tool to help the girls find hope and healing. “Nothing is wasted in an aquaponics system,” she said. “Even the waste from the fish is useful. These girls can understand that the part of their life that they thought was a complete waste can, in time, bring help and nourishment to others. As they prune the branches, they’ll learn more about life’s healthy little prunings that help us grow. As they protect the plants from harmful predators, they will remember that they’re in a safe place too. As they control the environmental elements that come into the greenhouse, they will realize that they can’t isolate entirely, but they’ll learn how to safely let the world in.”
It takes a long time for trafficking victims to find empowerment and to realize that they actually have a voice in this world. There are major cognitive and neurological changes that take place during their healing process. Thanks to our amazing community, and to aquaponics farming, we can provide a tool to help in that process.
We definitely don’t have all the answers, and we’re only one small piece of a huge global network of solutions. However, human trafficking is a man-made problem, so we can work together to create man-made solutions to right the wrongs that have been made. Together, through our amazing community of supporters, we have found a creative and sustainable way to join in that effort.
When I moved to Asia in 2011, I thought I’d be here for a short one-year gap in between undergrad and grad school. I had no idea that 6 months later I’d be sitting at a table for two at KFC across from a Ugandan woman named Sarah* as she told me her story of being tricked and trafficked. Our lives would never be the same.
Both of us 23 years old, my head was spinning as Sarah told me how she’d come to Asia after being promised a decent paying job at a restaurant. Because it was difficult to find a job at home, and because (not unlike me) she was excited to travel and see the world, she accepted the job, received all her travel documents, and got on a plane. Once she arrived, she was received by another Ugandan woman who took her passport and told her that she owed $5,000 for everything they’d done for her, but there was no restaurant. The only job was prostitution. When Sarah tried to refuse, she was threatened and kicked out on to the streets in the middle of winter. In a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language, had no money or food, and had been told to be afraid of the police, she didn’t have anywhere to go. After a few days she went back to the only person she knew in the entire country—the woman who’d brought her here.
Sarah told me stories of being threatened, abused, trapped, and raped. She then looked me in the eyes and said, “I don’t want to do this. Will you help me go home?” I was totally overwhelmed and had no idea what to say other than, “I’ll try… Lord help us.” The next six weeks were a total whirlwind but eventually Sarah got on a plane as a free woman back to Uganda, and Red Oak began.
Red Oak is a non-profit that exists to bring freedom, hope, and restoration to women and children affected by the sex industry. We have offices in Asia and the United States, and partner all over the world with businesses, governments, NGOs, churches, and individuals in order to address the issues of trafficking and exploitation through prevention, intervention, and restoration. Some of the services we provide include things like: education & awareness, safe shelter, food, immigration services, repatriation, job placement, vocational training, mentorship, counseling, and more.
While the vast majority of our beneficiaries are women over 18, any holistic program for women of child-bearing age has to consider the children involved. At least 70% of our beneficiaries have had children—some who have been born in the middle of trafficking, and some who have been left behind at home while the moms travelled elsewhere for work. Unfortunately, these children then become vulnerable to abuse themselves. Oftentimes we see that a mother’s desire to provide for her children actually adds to her vulnerability of trafficking and exploitation as she’s more willing to accept risky job placements in order to pay for things like medical bills or school fees for her children.
We’re passionate about helping preserve family health whenever possible. We’ve helped women give birth to babies abroad and then go through the long process of getting a birth certificate and being approved through the immigration system without a father present (which is often not allowed in Asia). We’ve helped provide day care scholarships to children so that the moms can work jobs with fair wages and fair working conditions. We’ve provided medical care, translation, and assistance when these children are sick. What we’ve seen is that so many of our beneficiaries are incredible single moms just trying the best they can to survive and care for their children. By supporting moms, we are working to break cycles of abuse and poverty, and working to keep families together.
Some would say that our work at Red Oak is exhausting, and of course, working in trauma and seeing the depth of human suffering is heartbreaking and hard. BUT, coming alongside strong women and walking with them as they fight for freedom, hope, and restoration for both them and their families never gets old to me. These women have become my inspiration, my teachers, and my friends and walking alongside them is one of the greatest privileges of my life.
While we know everybody isn’t going to become a full-time activist, at Red Oak we truly believe that EVERYONE has a role to play in fighting human trafficking and supporting women. For more information on our work both domestically and abroad, visit www.redoakhope.org or follow us on social media @redoakhope. We’d love to talk to you about ways to get involved!
At Walk In Love, family preservation is one of our primary goals.
At just 17 years old, Mama R moved from her village to the city of Arusha (Population 1 million) in search of work. She was able to secure a stable, but low paying, job at a local factory. Shortly afterwards she found herself pregnant and her boyfriend quickly abandoned her and their unborn child. With no family in Arusha she felt helpless and unsure of how she could provide for her baby. Once Baby R was born, her mama struggled to produce enough breastmilk because she herself was malnourished. She was frantic to return to work so that she could provide for her family. However, she had no one to take care of her infant. When Baby R was 3 months old, Mama R found a neighbor who was willing to watch her baby during the day. However, after a few weeks Baby R had lost a significant amount of weight, was listless, and covered in skin rashes. Mama R recounts how she had sought out an orphanage, but that she was broken-hearted to think of never seeing her daughter. It was at this time that Mama R met Glory, the manager of the Kisongo Center. Glory immediately helped to enroll Baby R in the Walk In Love Daycare program and Mama R was able to return to work confident that her daughter was being well fed and cared for in a loving environment. Since Baby R joined the Kisongo Center family, she has gained almost 10 pounds. She is a now happy and thriving 7-month-old girl.
This is why we do what we do.
We have two main projects in operation, the first being our daycare center project. We are currently operating two daycare centers in the Arusha area of Tanzania where we provide high quality, low cost daycare to at-risk families.
Our first center, the Kisongo Center, was opened in January of 2018. It currently employees six staff and has 35 children enrolled. We opened this center with the belief that daycare was one of the primary resources needed to help families stay together and thrive. We specifically targeted single parent families, families in poverty that would benefit from both parents working, and families in the process of reunification. In only three weeks, our first center was full and with a waiting list. Daycare is a resource that has been completely out of reach to the working class in Tanzania. Many times families, especially single parent families, have turned to orphanages to take their young children (ages 0-5) whenever they could no longer stay home to care for them. With daycare, parents know that they can bring their child to a safe place where they will be well cared for and fed. Parents are able to work with peace of mind, knowing that their young child is safe. This changes the dynamic for the whole family and everyone starts to thrive.
We have done an informal survey of the families in our center and out of 52 families, 61% reported either moving from unemployed to employed or seeing a significant increase in earnings because of having childcare available.
In May of 2018 we opened our second center, this one is called the Market Center. This center was opened in direct response to the Ministry of Social Welfare of Tanzania recognizing the impact that our Kisongo Center was having, and asking us to open a second center closer to the city food market. We opened the Market Center in one of the most disadvantaged areas of Arusha. In this center we have children who have been able to come out of orphanage care because they could attend the daycare while their parents were working. Daycare seems like such a simple resource, but the impact is huge. Between the two centers we have 60 children enrolled. We are committed to keeping kids out of orphanages by providing the resources families need to thrive.
Our second project is Maisha Matters. Maisha Matters is a program developed by the orphanage Forever Angels in Mwanza, Tanzania. We are the second satellite program for Maisha Matters and follow the curriculum designed by Forever Angels. They have agreed to support us by paying for the needed milk formula for a period of two years. Maisha Matters is a program for both malnourished children and children who do not have a lactating mother. We work closely with hospitals in the area to identify children who need nutritional support. Most of these children are babies who have lost their mother during childbirth. These children are being raised by a family member, usually a grandmother, aunt or father. In Tanzania, all formula is imported and costs $15 per small tin, which makes it completely unaffordable to the general population. Without Maisha Matters, these children would likely all end up in an orphanage. We also support mothers of multiples, who are not able to produce enough breastmilk for multiple children. Maisha Matters is a 12 month program where parents come to weekly classes to learn about hygiene, disease prevention, child development and safety. Throughout the program their child is weighed to make sure they are growing over the course of the program and, and after 6 months, families that qualify are eligible for small business grants. The goal of Maisha Matters is to have completely independent, thriving, healthy families.
I was born and raised in Kampala, Uganda. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and have been practicing in Uganda for six years, working closely with orphaned and vulnerable children and their families.
My journey into this work dates back to when I was a child myself, sometimes my family would go downtown and I would notice kids on the street begging, looking so hopeless and distraught. This was in the late 1990’s when war in Northern Uganda was at its height. The war caused family separation, orphaned children, child headed households, among other evils. Seeing people go through these struggles, who often fled to Kampala, stirred a great deal of sympathy and compassion within me, especially for the children. I was growing up in a safe, secure family and I knew every child should have food, shelter, education, love and protection as I did. When I grew older, my world view broadened. I started noticing ways children in society were oppressed. I knew I needed to become an advocate to bring about positive change in the lives of children so they could lead purposeful lives.
Family reunification is important to me because I believe that the protection of the family unit is fundamental to a child’s wellbeing. Every child deserves the right to grow up in a loving and safe home where family values are instilled and there is a great sense of belonging. The family unit also protects cultural values, which are often lost in long-term separation cases.
Currently in Uganda, orphanages are still very operational, but most are in the process of being phased out. Their main focus is providing education and medical care, among other things, to the children that they house. The Ugandan government is working to close orphanages that do not meet its requirements for approved homes. Uganda has also fronted the Alternative Care Framework which prioritizes children being placed in family based care, with institutionalization (orphanages) as a last resort. As a Social Worker, one of my jobs is to work closely with orphanages to repurpose them into community based organizations which will work to support reunified, orphaned and vulnerable children within a family unit. In my observation, supporting children within their families has a far more reaching impact.
The process I use for reunification is Case Management and involves identification of the child, child profiling, tracing for and identifying biological family members, registering, assessing families’ willingness and ability, developing a case plan, pre-placement case review, child preparation, family preparation, implementing the case plan through delivering or referring to services, facilitating and overseeing the placement of the child into the family environment and on-going monitoring and documentation of their reintegration, reviews and finally closure or transferring the case. This is done over a fifteen-month period.
I came across a boy in one of the child care institutions I work with; he had been abandoned on the streets of Kampala at age 3. The police picked him up, and a probation officer brought him to an organization for vulnerable children. After three failed attempts to trace his family, I was able to finally find the village he originally came from. Upon finding his mother I engaged with her and established, without a reasonable doubt, that they were related. She told me that she was unable and unwilling to take the boy back. Her reason was that she feared for her marriage. Since abandoning her son she had gotten married, and never told her husband about the boy. If her son were to return, she feared her husband would be angry, kicking her out of the house and even ending the marriage. At a later visit, she disclosed other family members and I got in contact with the boy’s grandfather to explain the situation. He was very welcoming and willing to have his grandson live with him. Eventually the boy was reunified with his grandfather in April of 2018. We are still actively working with the family and this boy is now thriving, attending school and beginning to develop a relationship with his mother through visitation.
As with any topic within orphan care, there will always be challenges because this was not how the family was designed to be. Here are a couple of the challenges I’ve faced when working as a social worker in reunification:
Being unable to trace and find family members or next of kin for a particular child. This is due to largely poor record keeping, uncooperative child care institutions and the child having a vague memory of where they might come from.
Finding a family member that is unwilling to take back the child.
The inability of some families to receive the child, mainly due to extreme poverty. In these sorts of situations, an alternative solution must be found
I am motivated to do this work because I do not view it as a job, but a passion. Over time I have seen families transformed through reunification. I know this work is impactful. It helps that reunification is strongly supported by the Ugandan government, and local and international organizations. I am motivated by the fact there are millions of advocates out there, in different capacities, working towards the same goal.
Reunification is critical to ending the problems of children living in institutions in Uganda. Traditionally in our culture orphaned children were immediately taken in by extended family members. Today, reunification reminds people of this custom. The truth of the matter is, most children living in orphanages in Uganda today are not total orphans. They have living extended family members that can take them in with the right support. This is possible because there is considerable financial support and research put into reunification today. Beginning in 2011, there has also been a campaign called Ugandans Adopt, which encourages Ugandan adults to adopt and foster. Local child care institutions that are willing to be repurposed into centers that support families are also a key component.
I do see deinstitutionalization happening in other African countries, for example, it has already begun in Rwanda. When the proprietors of these orphanages are equipped with the right information, they are told how they can repurpose into community based organizations, and have any fears addressed (closing down, staff losing jobs) then I believe we can all work towards family reunification.
People interested in reunification can support organizations that are dedicated to the protection of the family unit. Most organizations doing this kind of work, like the one I work for, entirely depend on donations and funds in order to change children’s lives. Through writing, storytelling and donations, people can become advocates for vulnerable children.