Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The orphans we don't want to think about

I just returned from a heart changing trip to Atlanta.  This was supposed to be a missions trip where I would use my gifts and abilities to impart my wisdom on several teenagers rehabilitating from sex trafficking who needed life skills training.  Missionaries are supposed to use the skills they have obtained and language they've learned to make a difference, right?  While I was there I was planning on going out in the community as well, maybe finding a Spanish speaker or someone in need of medical care, and help them.  Of course I don't go on trips just to do trainings and teachings.  They are my "platform".  My abilities give me an edge to give people what they need.  When using these abilities I can share Christ and demonstrate love through my time spent working with people.


      The coordinators let me slip through the cracks.  They kept forgetting to call me back and set up my "trainings" I was supposed to do.  Week after week passed, and I never heard from them.  It took until Monday to get on the phone with someone who would schedule my class time for Wednesday to Friday, and by then, all but one two hour workshop was filled in for the girls' summer camp (this is misleading because they don't go anywhere).  I wanted to get angry.  I had no time to prepare.  I thought I'd teach a Bible Study on dignity and reflecting who we are in Christ in our modesty ( I was told this was a need), or teach on women's health but there was no time to fit it in the schedule.  Instead, I was asked to cook.

     COOK?  I'm going to drive 6 1/2 hours, book a hotel for three nights, leave my children with a babysitter, just to COOK?  Anyone can cook!  My self-righteous pride tried to take control.  The coordinator told me I could insert talks into down time and I could hang around the entire time apart from sleeping for the 3 days I was spending there.
     So I packed my bags and headed to Atlanta.  When I arrived and was let into the door, I was met with indifferent stares.  A houseparent (they are called coaches and take shifts with the girls) asked me "are you here to cook dinner tonight?".  I introduced myself and told them I'd be hanging out for the next couple days and yes, I would be cooking.  Another coach volunteered to give me a tour of the girls' home and told me briefly about some of the situations they had been experiencing with some of them.


     The security in the building is very tight.  Every hallway, exit, classroom or bathroom door had a lock or required a card to swipe in order to pass through.  It functions like a prison with beautiful decorations and living spaces.  Everything sharp was behind locked doors, including scissors and kitchen utensils.  This was to protect the girls from themselves.  If you know anything about troubled teens, sharp objects can be used to help relieve the pain inside.  Most of the girls wore long sleeves to cover the scars of their pain.  I was told many of them did not want to be there.  Many were given a choice: either you go to prison or you go to the home for about a year until you are determined ready to live a normal life in a family again.  The most common way to be rescued when one is a minor is to be caught up in a police sting.  The girls are found to be minors when they are booked at the station and then get processed through several channels until they end up in the home.  The manipulation and degradation that they receive from their captors make them feel that this is the only life they are capable of living.  They are required to have three "tricks" per night, and sometimes it is as many as 10-20 tricks/night to be fed one meal that day.  If they try to escape or do any other unacceptable behavior, they are beaten.  Often, they are not only beaten by their captor but by the other girls in the "stable" (they are treated like animals, so have an animal-type name as well).  This is to put pressure on all the girls to be loyal only to their captor.
        So why do I call them orphans in this post?  The answer is simple.  These girls have no real family to begin with.  They are products of a system and society gone bad.  The majority of minors who find themselves in sex trafficking begin as children with either biological parents who abuse and/or neglect them or children with foster parents who don't love them.  They become resentful, angry, and empty.  Then they run away.  Desperate for someone to help them and love them, when approached by a friendly, sweet guy at the bus stop or somewhere similar which gives them away as a runaway, they agree to go with him.  He may take her shopping, treat her affectionately, and behave like he really does care about her.  Then the men start arriving.  He asks her to do "tricks" out of her loyalty to him.  She will not be fed or treated "well" if she doesn't do what he demands.  Most girls are so brainwashed and manipulated into thinking this is a worthwhile life to live that they don't even realize what is happening.  They become shells of a person, obeying their captors demands and becoming the equivalent of an animal, feeling they have no value or worth.  When they arrive at the rehabilitation home, they often rebel.  They don't understand why someone insists they have potential and value, or why the women there insist they are loved and cared about.  The center aims at getting the girls caught up in school through online courses and an onsite tutor; they go through counseling and therapy on a daily and weekly basis, get proper medical care, get their own private, comfortable room to restore their dignity, and they receive life-skills training to prepare to meet the world again when they are released back into a foster family or even their biological family (if they are wanted).  Since this organization is founded by Christians, there are several Christian staff and volunteers from local churches who try to instill Biblical principles into their process.
     Now for some statistics.  Just how big and serious of a problem is this in the United States?  We hear about sex-trafficking being a huge issue in places like India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, China, and other third world countries, but the United States shouldn't have much of an issue with it, right?  Wrong.

     Fact: In the U.S., 1 in 3 runaway children are lured into prostitution within 48 hours.  450,000 children run away per year.  You do the math.
   Fact: In the U.S. the average age to be caught up in the sex trafficking industry is 11-14 years old.  Some children are as young as 9 years old.
   Fact: The life expectancy for a child, once they enter this life, is 7 years.
   Fact: Atlanta is known as the sex-trafficking capital of the United States.
  Positive Fact: Girls and women who are rehabilitated through the Christian programs offered to them have a 60% success rate of not returning to their old lives once they are released back into society. Similar secular programs produce a 40% success rate.

    I'd like to share some stories now.  As I cooked some of my favorite meals and desserts for the girls, some of them got involved and wanted to learn my recipes.  Some even volunteered to help me cook and were able to talk privately with me.  The two hour session I was given was used to teach them how to make fancy fruit skewers with cut out shapes and designs to make a beautiful display in a watermelon cut into a basket.  They worked on it for an hour without complaining.  We watched "Soul Surfer" and discussed how Bethany Hamilton's story is similar to theirs (and most other people who have had their lives given a curve ball) and how Christ can help us overcome our pasts and pursue our dreams and goals.  I sat on the couch and watched them play Mario Brothers on the Wii, we enjoyed painting each other's nails together and making bracelets, picked items for their boutique time to purchase with the bucks they earned through behavior and completed chores (it's some pretty nice donated girly stuff!), and witnessed outbursts of hurt and anger and was able to have some deep talks.  Here are some snippets of some of the best conversations that I'll treasure.  I was told that they usually don't want to talk about their pasts to most volunteers.  They must feel comfortable and safe to discuss their pasts and trust the person they are talking to.
     "I was sexually abused by four of my family members.  Has anything like this ever happened to you?".

    "When I get out of here I'll be in the foster system and eligible for adoption.  Will you adopt me?"

     "When I was __ yrs. old my mother was murdered.  She was pregnant" (I've hidden details to maintain her identity, but the story was very traumatic).

     "I had an abortion and a miscarriage.  My baby (I aborted) would be _ yrs. old in ___" (abortions are very common with trafficked girls).

     "What is REAL love like?  How can you tell?" (I had just told them Kris and my love story and how we saved ourselves for marriage).

      I witnessed a very emotional blow up by two girls as well.  There was lots of foul language coming out of their mouths for several minutes as they released frustration.  One girl became violent and injured herself.  She was brought to the hospital that afternoon and returned that night.  This is common.

The hardest thing to witness wasn't their words or actions, but their eyes.  While these two girls were yelling and throwing things, their eyes were full of pain.  The pain was coming out in an immature way, but it was the only way they could get it out at the time.  I hurt so badly for them.

Each of these quotes and snippets have deeper stories behind them.  Each time I was able to share with the individual some about either hope, restoration, or salvation in Christ.

     I came into this trip thinking I could "do" something to make a difference.  But Jesus doesn't call us to primarily be workers, He calls us to be lights in the darkness.

 If I speak in the tounges of men and of angels, but have not LOVE, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not LOVE, I am NOTHING."
1 Corinthians 13:1-2

   You know that quote "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care"?  I witnessed that in a huge way this week.  I had to become NOTHING.  A menial cook and culinary art teacher, and opener of the lock to the bathroom, a clean up assistant after art and beauty sessions, a pusher in of the DVD for the night, a carrier and shopper of the groceries.  These actions meant more to these girls than any fancy study or class.  They didn't see education or wisdom, they saw love.  I received huge hugs and words of thanks as I left.  The coaches told me this doesn't normally happen with a typical volunteer who comes in to do classes or events.  It wasn't my flamboyant personality or charm, or even my witty sense of humor (I'm using sarcasm here, just to be clear), but LOVE for these girls.  That's what they need.  That's what they are worthy of.

I cry to you, O Lord; I say "You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living." Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.  Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name.  Then the righteous will gather around me because of your goodness to me.
Psalm 142: 5-7

A pilar at the Atlanta Dream center filled with quotes of survivors

So how can you be involved with a ministry like this?  The ministry I was a part of is called Wellspring Living.  Another ministry I was able to work with on Friday night and Saturday morning was Out of Darkness.  They are a branch of The Atlanta Dream Center, a rather charismatic church planted in the heart of Atlanta (I got my first oil anointing while there, by the way!).  The staff and workers in that church are passionate about rescuing all prostitutes, whether trafficked or those who chose the life out of desperation.  They are offered a way out and hundreds have been taken off the streets and rehabilitated since the ministry has begun.  On Friday nights one can choose to stay for a worship and prayer time, go out prayer walking in the hub of where the dark practices of prostitution take place, such as strip clubs, brothels, adult shops, Asian massage parlors, and gay/lesbian bars, or be a part of Princess Night, where a small group goes out with roses to tell the prostitutes that they are loved and beautiful, offer prayer, and given a card with a way of escape and rescue out of the life. Some have been known to jump on the van with the women and be taken to a safe house.

One would think that these ministries are very dangerous.  To the rational human being, they are.  To we who have been there, we feel protected by the grace of God.  The ministry has established a presence of love and hope.  The most violent people who are present often are tolerant and sometimes even ask for prayer themselves!  This alone is evidence that God is at work in hearts.

On Saturdays the Out of Darkness ministry goes into communities.  I chose a group that went to the neighborhood where many of the women in the prostitution community live.  We passed out groceries, hygiene items, and cards with a number to call if they wish to get off the streets.  Within an hour a bus will pick them up and take them to a safe house.  They will be given a year to rehabilitate and find a job with skills they obtain while in a safe home.  While we were visiting in this neighborhood I got to pray with and read Scripture with a woman who was having a rough time.  We helped a woman who recently got out of jail to find a way to get her power turned on for her and her two toddlers.  We prayed with a man who just got out of prison and didn't want to get into trouble and go back again.  We prayed over a chronically sick woman in bed.  We loved on multiple children who are a part of a ministry of the Atlanta Dream Center as well.  They are picked up for church every Sunday.

Here are some links to get involved with these ministries: 

Here are links to nation-wide ministries that work with international sex-trafficking.


If you want to know what ministry is located near to your city, try to google it.  If nothing turns up, contact the Atlanta Dream Center.  They have resources that may help you find a group local to you that you can be involved with.

Sex Trafficking is very real.  It happens under our noses every day.  Whenever you watch or look at something pornographic, whenever you sneak into a strip club,  you are contributing to this industry.  If there wasn't demand, there wouldn't be trafficking.  Just to give an indicator of how many people are trafficked in and out of Atlanta alone, I was shown that in the community where much prostitution occurs there is a small airport.  This airport is used to traffic the girls in and out of Atlanta.  There's no telling how many people there turn a blind eye to what is occurring.

These are the orphans we don't think about.  These are girls without families.  They want love, hope, and acceptance.  They are created in the image of God.  The next time you see a lady of the night walking down the sidewalk in your city, don't look at her with disgust.  See her through the eyes of Christ.  The next time you drive by a strip club, massage parlor, or adult store, don't cringe and judge the people inside.  Pray.  Pray for the darkness in that place to be swept away by light.  Pray that one day a church will meet there in that building instead.  Pray for hearts to be turned to truth and for opportunities for those individuals to come to Christ and be healed.

My heart is changed.  If you become involved in this unique ministry, I guarantee that yours will be too.

On the bus to go prayer walking


Friday, July 4, 2014

Surgery #4: Centennial Women's and Children's Hospital

We kissed them goodbye.  The remaining nevi on her cheek and neck were the last to go.  The last reminder of what God used to bring her to us were about to disappear forever.  It was a bittersweet moment, knowing our daughter would come out of surgery with only scars to tell her story.  

On July 2nd we woke up early, packed the car, dropped off the boys at Kris' parents' house, and headed to Nashville.  Anna Faith was perfectly behaved, despite the fact she couldn't eat anything, or drink shortly after leaving home.  When we got to the hospital she showed no signs of anxiety and just wanted to play.  We knew she remembered a lot from her past surgeries.  She knew the routine of getting on the scale and getting her ID band put on, getting her vital signs taken, etc.  She did it all with a smile and politely said "thank you" to the nurses.  This was the first time she kind of understood why we were at the hospital.  I asked her about her spots and she could answer "spots go bye bye".  She knew there would be more boo boo's which made her unhappy when I mentioned it.  She remembered the stitches and bandages that bothered her in the past.

With Nikki and Sam Carter who were waiting news on their daughter in surgery
After checking in, we discovered a fellow family on our nevus removal support group Facebook page was next door to us.  We knew ahead of time that their daughter would be getting surgery just before Anna Faith, and were thrilled we could pass the time getting to know each other better and sharing stories about our daughters.  The girls never got to meet since one girl was leaving surgery while the other was going in, but if they ever do meet, we determined they would make great friends!  It is wonderful having people in your life who understand your anxieties, experiences, frustrations and victories.

Anna Faith was taken back to surgery about 1:30, an hour after it was scheduled.  Shortly after they began, a code blue was called in the hospital.  I could barely hear the location, but when it was repeated, my heart returned to my chest as they announced it was in a diagnostic lab, not the Operating Room.  I prayed for the family affected that may have lost a loved one while Anna Faith was safe in surgery. We got an update after an hour telling us the back of her neck and cheek were finished and Dr. Chester was now working on the front of her neck. This turned out to be the shortest surgery she's had, lasting about 2 hours.  We were pleasantly surprised when Dr. Chester came into our holding room to tell us the news: 99% of her nevi were now removed!  She couldn't quite get a couple tiny spots on the front of her neck, but if the incision heals well and makes a pretty scar, she may be able to remove them in her office in several months.  This was wonderful news!
After another half an hour we were told we could come see her in the PACU.  The anesthesiologist gave her medication to help with her anxiety when waking up, since the first two surgeries were rough in recovery for her with anxiety and vomiting. They also gave something for nausea which was very helpful in past surgeries as well.  She was so tired when we found her on the bed we had to wait for her to open her eyes.  She was a little upset and didn't want to be held, but after she was awake enough to go back to her holding room, she drank a little apple juice, was given an iPad to play on, and became calm.  She was still loopy and grumpy for another hour, as you can see in this photo:

We were able to leave the hospital at 5:30 p.m. and had an uneventful ride home.  Anna Faith got hungry and ate a ton of crackers on the way, then drifted to sleep until we got home.  She slept through the night just on a dose of Tylenol and Motrin, and when I woke up, I discovered she had already been fed breakfast by her 4 year old brother, Nathanael.  He was snuggling with her in a chair watching her cartoons when I walked into the living room.  Her brothers are so compassionate to her when she's had surgery.  It won't take long before they start teasing her to make her fuss at them again!

Before surgery #2 to begin removal on anterior neck
Here are the before and after surgery #2 which removed the first part of the cheek and neck and 2 day after surgery #4 photos which finished removal in these areas:  Her neck is looking wonderful already.  Her cheek is covered with steri-strips so we won't be able to see the incision line well until after they wear off.   She had some bleeding through them the first day, but from what we can see, it is a very neatly done incision and should heal beautifully.  I will take her stitches out of her neck in a week after making sure her surgeon is OK with it when I send photos to her.  We don't have to go back to Nashville for a visit until this fall so she can assess what will become of the last couple tiny spots after everything has completely healed and we can see how the scars will look.

before surgery #4 to finish removal

one day post-op 07/03/14

before surgery #2 to begin removal on right cheek
before surgery #4 to complete removal
2 days post-op: no more cheek nevus!
It is hard to believe her journey of nevus removal is probably over!  Her first surgery was 11 months ago, and we were never sure how many surgeries she would need.  She has done amazingly well with pain control and anxiety, especially for a two year old!  We are blessed to have all of these events fall into place: a great surgeon, successful, uncomplicated surgeries, timing of surgeries around the farm's schedule so Kris could come to the hospital with us, good health of our family, good weather, available childcare for the boys, and no bad infections during healing.  We have felt the many prayers from Facebook friends and family who support us and love our Little Lady.  

To the nevus families who were given a child by birth who was created with nevi, you have my admiration and respect.  You are strong in going down a road that you did not know you would be taking until your child was born.  God doesn't have accidents when He weaves our children in our wombs.  He has a special plan, and sometimes it is so hard to trust Him when we can't see the end of the tunnel.  Keep trusting, keep fighting for your child, and keep your hope.

To the nevus families who chose their child with nevi:  You also have my admiration and respect.  You chose this road, because you chose your child(ten) who were rejected by their birth parents, whether out of fear or out of another unknown reason.  You grafted your beautiful child into your family and have loved and prayed them through the removal process.  I understand your hearts, and they are precious in the sight of the Lord for your courageous and loving choice to take this journey with your little one(s).   Our daughter only needed 4 surgeries, yet many others of you have dozens upon dozens of surgeries over the span of several years for your children.  You are so strong, so brave, and so admired.  Keep going and trust the Lord to carry you through.