My Body Is Not a Commodity

“I had this dream...I am not sure when, but I dreamt all of the fencing around the Project SAFE Shelter [Domestic Violence Shelter in Fort Thompson, South Dakota] had fallen—that the wind had come up, and that it blew so hard that it flattened the fence,” recalls Lisa Heth, Executive Director of Wiconi Wawokiya.

Lisa awakened. She prayed, “Oh Lord, please don’t let the fence blow down.”  

Months later, in June of 2015, a terrible windstorm hit the area: shingles flew, fences flattened, trailers toppled, trees uprooted, and electrical lines fell. Fort Thompson even lost a community member in the storm. But, the fence at the Project SAFE Shelter stood.  

At the time, Lisa just thought her prayer had been answered; however, she would soon discover that her dream meant so much more.

Providing refuge

Wiconi Wawokiya, Inc. [Helping Life], a Native Hope partner organization, is a non-profit dedicated to ending domestic and sexual violence. Located on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota, the company provides services through Project SAFE Shelter, Children’s SAFE Place, and its sister shelter Mita Maske Ti Ki in Sioux Falls.  

The staff at the shelters strive to help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse through culturally specific assistance that empowers victims to take charge of their lives.

Recently, Lisa and her employees have taken on the challenge of opening a shelter specifically for victims of human trafficking. Like the domestic abuse shelters Wiconi Wawokiya operates, the new Pathfinder Center will help victims of human trafficking do just that—find their path.   

A new generation of victims

“A lot of these girls aren’t getting any sleep. They are hooked on meth. They are malnourished; they need rest,” shares Heth. “Imagine that a sex trafficking victim might be forced to perform 30-40 sexual acts a day depending on the event. They are not only physically drained but also mentally exhausted.”

The Pathfinder Center will be the first of its kind in the state of South Dakota, and while Wiconi Wawokiya has a history of serving the Native American population, the shelter will be open to all victims of sex and labor trafficking.

“The Pathfinder Center was not my idea,” explains Lisa. “It was something that came from the Creator. It [the Pathfinder Center] fulfills a need to serve the victims of human trafficking.”

Heth recognizes the need for this facility because the victims of human trafficking possess unique trauma that requires extended support beyond that of a typical shelter. Traditional shelters house domestic violence victims: mothers with children, who are normally housed up to 30 days. These shelters frequently operate at capacity.

“It doesn’t work for victims of human trafficking to be mixed with the victims of domestic violence, especially in the small shelters. A lot of times there are children involved with victims of domestic violence, and with human trafficking most of the victims do not have children, or maybe they lost them, or some may have had abortions.”

Multiple layers of trauma exist because most sex trafficking victims suffered childhood sexual abuse on top of being trafficked. Reminders of the past can easily act as trigger points. Consequently, these young victims need solace and time in a safe environment where they can simply rest.

“We [Pathfinder Center] want them to come in and feel peace and safety and let them know that we are wanting to help them to be on a path to healing and to finding their purpose or destiny in life,” Heth points out with sincerity.

“No one is meant to be used and abused in any way. We will help to remove those layers of trauma and help to find their gifts and talents,” emphasizes Heth. “God has really put it in my heart to reach out to others for help, and I found it amazing all the organizations that have come forward to sponsor rooms. I hope the room matches her [each victim’s] personality and that the room says, ‘Hey, South Dakota really does love and care about her.’”

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It all takes time

The Pathfinder Center will have 14 rooms, including two for families. The plan will not be to fill up the center immediately but rather to build it up slowly, so the staff can grow into the shelter as well. Eventually, they would like to have interns and volunteers. The facility will also have sleeping rooms for the staff and volunteers as well.

Wiconi Wawokiya named the center “Pathfinder” because they, too, are finding their path. They plan to offer culturally sensitive services for Native women and will foster the spiritual aspect as well. The process of healing takes time. The Pathfinder Center plans to house these victims for up to a year before helping them transition back into life outside the center.

Lisa hopes to work closely with churches, tribes, and other entities to ensure each woman has a network of supporters to whom she can turn once she leaves the center.  

Heth imagines that after a victim has been at the center for a year, the staff will help her relocate within the state of South Dakota. There will be a resource guide with the various groups of supporters that are willing to “adopt her”—to help her find a job and make sure she is on her feet. Lisa sees this community of supporters as key to each victim’s success.

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Moving beyond

A victim tells Native Hope, “As a recovering addict and hopeful survivor [of sex trafficking], I know the journey has just begun...but with the help and support of family, friends, and my son, I have managed to turn my life around. That doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy...but I keep my faith in God and pray for strength every day.” 

These are words that Lisa Heth and her staff hope to hear from many more young victims as they free themselves from trafficking.

According to Lisa, it took several months for her to realize that her dream about the fence falling down around the Project SAFE Shelter was not about the fence actually coming down. Instead, she realized the dream meant that God was expanding Wiconi Wawokiya’s borders. To learn more about the Pathfinder grand opening visit here.

Stand with Native Hope against sex trafficking and help victims find their way out to healing and recovery.

Topics: Stories of Hope, Youth Empowerment, At Risk Issues

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