Our city has a dirty secret. It’s not little and it’s not pretty but here it is: Atlanta has a human trafficking problem. Not only is Atlanta one of the highest profiteers from sex trafficking, we also have the highest rate of Hispanics trafficked in the nation and on average, 100 juvenile girls are exploited each night throughout the state of Georgia.
In recognition of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we spoke with Mary Frances Bowley, the woman healing hearts in a city with a blighted underground trade industry. As Founder and Executive Director of Wellspring Living, one of Atlanta’s largest nonprofits devoted to fighting childhood sexual abuse and exploitation, Mary Frances brings her grit, faith and southern lilt to one of our city’s ugliest idiosyncrasies. She took time out of her perpetually busy schedule to share Wellspring’s journey, their stories of success and ways to create a new landscape.
Wellspring Living does a lot of great work. How did you get to this point with the various services that you provide?
Through volunteering, I met a woman who had been deeply damaged while participating in Atlanta’s sex industry. She was trying to assist other women who were still part of the industry in their goal to pursue different paths. She shared with me that if women are going to be independent from sex work, they need a home, a helpful place to stay, somewhere to heal.
My peers and I found a house so she could pursue her dream of helping these women but she realized the problems were bigger than she knew how to take on, so she turned the home over to us. We really fell into this work. My background is teaching so I approached the home as a holistic place for women. We hired great therapists and brought in volunteers to teach life skills; we created a comprehensive program to help move women forward.
In 2007, Mayor Shirley Franklin asked me if we would consider helping girls who are bought and sold on the streets of Atlanta. We were just working with women at that time and I had no idea Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking was a problem in our city. The research I did on that issue led to our program for girls ages 12 to 17. At first, we just did programming through other organizations but a few years ago we opened a home with a residential treatment school for 15 girls.
For the last two years, we have also worked with Randstad, the second largest staffing agency in the world, to found the Empowered Living Academy, a job training program that works to educate women who have experienced exploitation. The women in this program not only get necessities for today like a MARTA card, childcare, and lunch, but they also get paid apprenticeships to ensure they can transition into the work environment and build a resume while they are learning. Thus far, we have served 114 women and created some great additional corporate partnerships.
Finally, we train institutions in the types of care we specialize in. So far, we have worked with 32 organizations around the United States and abroad on how they can best assist sex trafficking victims and those at risk. We are seeing the folks we train open their own homes for women and girls; in November one opened in Chicago and in the spring, one will be opening in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania. These organizations don’t have our name on them, but we help make sure that the kind of care these places are providing is the kind of care that works. We feel training is the most responsible way to share the information we have gathered over the years.
How do you find the women and girls that you serve?
We do a lot of work on the ground to spread awareness about what we do. We also have good relationships with nonprofits and government agencies across Atlanta; they refer women and girls to us. We have a strong presence online to attract women while girls are referred to us through DCFS and law enforcement since they are minors so we have to take custody of them.
What does success look like for the work that you do?
We have had suicidal girls show up at our door and when they leave they are successful. They go to college, get married, have children. They are able to live full, beautiful lives despite some really rough stuff in the beginning. It is really fun to see that happen.
We have also been recognized by the State of Georgia for our ability to get girls on grade level. They come in way behind but through a combination of online and in-person classes, they get on grade level. If these girls survive sex trafficking, they have cultivated some very sharp smarts and they bring that to their education. When given access and a little help, these girls can really help themselves up.
We are seeing a two generation impact with our employment initiatives. These moms are getting sustainable employment which means her child will not be as at-risk as she was growing up. We are seeing tremendous progress with those programs and are proud to see families thrive.
How are you trying to grow in the future?
We know that Randstad and YMCA are open to working with us to duplicate our efforts across Atlanta or even in another city. We are exploring what that looks like and making sure our model really works here.
We would love to have a community next step for our girls. They are will us from 8 to 10 months and then we work with them to integrate them back into their home environments. Unfortunately, we have seen that they often need more care than 10 months can give them. We would love to have a day program that is similar to what we provide at our home but available to them as they live with their families.
We are also excited about continuing to train other organizations in how to do this work; that is the only way we can ensure all survivors have access to similar care. We want to increase our ability to help others create a healthy, safe environment for survivors.
How can Atlanta help Wellspring Living?
There are many opportunities to get involved but one really great one is our Serve Days. Once a month on the weekends, volunteers come out to help and connect with participants. We have many opportunities to teach women and girls life skills classes or help with special events and activities.
You can also put your name on our Dreambuilders list and we’ll send out fun, different ways to get involved once per quarter. For example, in January, a DreamBuilder will host an event called Chilling with Chili; volunteers will make chili and played games with the girls. We really want to show our women and girls that people care for them.
To really understand this problem in Atlanta, check out our books. We published The White Umbrella, which helps people understand the girls and last January we released Make It Zero which helps people understand triggers and risk factors for children, as well as how we can work on prevention.
Little things can make a big difference. Whatever talents or interests you have is something that could be helpful. We invite people to come and share whatever their love is with our women or girls. Allow yourself to dream about what you might do to really change a life.
Images are property of Wellspring Living.