“I didn’t believe anyone out there could love someone like me.” The young sex trafficking survivor’s comment seared my heart. She had lived a lifetime’s worth of hurt and devastation, addiction and family dysfunction. In her late twenties when I met her, she had turned her life around and was looking at a brighter future.
What changed her mind was visits from volunteers for Out of Darkness, an Atlanta-based nonprofit focused on rescuing and restoring women in the sex trade. In jail facing serious charges, she met weekly with the volunteers who convinced her, and later a judge, that she could put her past behind her and work toward healing for herself and her young son.
Out of Darkness is the brainchild of founder Jeff Shaw, an Atlanta attorney. In 2009, following the pull of his faith, Shaw uncovered information on modern day slavery and found his purpose. Two years later, Out of Darkness was born.
Not wanting to replicate what others were already doing in Georgia to help women caught in the sex trade, Shaw worked with other nonprofits to find the gap in need. He found long-term care programs and outreach organizations, but there was no mechanism for women caught up in sexual exploitation to reach out to for help.
Out of Darkness launched as a 24-hour crisis response team with a hotline number and teams ready to pick up callers anywhere and deliver them to a safe house at any time of the day or night. Once safely out of crisis, women, with the help of Out of Darkness staff, are able to take advantage of long-term care programs that help them get back on their feet.
As volunteer capacity rose, Out of Darkness expanded its programs to outreach as well. One of the things advocates in this area will tell you is it is often difficult for women in “the life” to choose to leave it. They lack education needed for better work, as many as 80-90 percent have substance abuse and addiction problems, and many have been so beaten down by their experiences they can’t find hope for a better way to live.
Out of Darkness volunteers go into areas known for street prostitution and hand out flowers and the hotline number, they minister to women and men in strip clubs, and they meet with women who are in jail. In the jail ministry, where the young woman above met Out of Darkness, volunteers visit more than 300 individual women each year in eight different Metro Atlanta jails.
“For me the jail ministry is still one of the things that gives me goosebumps to talk about,” Shaw says, “Just because of the way it came about.” A few years ago, an inmate in a local jail reached out to Out of Darkness with a handwritten letter, about five pages long, detailing her life story. She was 43 years old and had recently been arrested for prostitution. She solicited a police officer, and he placed her under arrest and sat her on the curb where she immediately started crying. He had the Out of Darkness number on a card—all it had was the word “Hope” on it and the phone number—and he put it in her pocket.
She gave the card to the social worker who did her intake at the Atlanta City Detention Center. The social worker Googled the phone number, pulled up the Out of Darkness website, and wrote down the address. The woman sold her meal tray to get a stamped envelope from another inmate to send her letter. She had been in the life since she was 13 years old.
Out of Darkness is a volunteer-driven ministry. Volunteers staff the hotline and rescue teams, and volunteers are the lifeblood of their ministry and outreach. They go through an extensive application process with a criminal background check and interview, and they pay for their own two-day training. It’s easy to get people fired up about wanting to help with the human trafficking problem, but the work itself can be brutal and emotionally draining. This process helps find the most committed volunteers.
“Literally in areas where volunteers dry up, we have to shut those areas down,” Shaw says. So he speaks often at churches and community organizations like Rotary Club to get out the word about volunteer opportunities with Out of Darkness. “It’s a lot of organic reach,” he concludes.
Some of that reach has included opening Out of Darkness chapters in other communities with chapters in Macon, Georgia and Columbus, Ohio. They don’t just replicate the services offered and plop them down in a new community. They insist new chapters go through the same process of assessing the services already offered , finding the niche that needs filling, and filling it. The slower pace ensures they aren’t duplicating services already available, and it allows them to meet and form relationships with others already working in that space.
Communities across the country have reached out to Out of Darkness for training and coaching to start up programs of their own, and one of Shaw’s big dreams is being able to hire a full time person to tackle the travel, training, and community mobilization that could launch similar rescue and outreach programs to women in other communities. As with big dreams of nonprofits everywhere, this one is awaiting the funding to make it happen.
Even with the challenges and frustration that the nonstop fundraising cycle brings for nonprofits, Shaw still finds joy and inspiration in the women who come through Out of Darkness and find a new positive direction for their lives.
“I’m not trying to be cliché, but I hear the horrific side of this all the time. The overwhelming statistics. There is always something to be discouraged about, but then day in and day out you see the lives of people being forever changed. You are seeing their children grow up differently than they and all the generations before them did. I think all the time about these generational cycles being broken; that it’s not just that person, but now their children and their children’s children and generations that will follow will not experience what they and their mom and their grandmother did. For me, there is so much joy in that. Going to a wedding, going to a graduation, celebrating four years of sobriety—all the little victories that give so much joy and color to what we do, that so overwhelm all the dark parts of it. Easily for me, that’s the joy.”
I met the young woman whose life was touched by Out of Darkness when she spoke at a seminar in Rome, Georgia training medical professionals on the signs and symptoms of sex trafficking and how they would present in a medical examination. It took more than two years of grueling work in a long-term program specially designed for women coming out of the sex industry, and she now works to help other women get out of the life.
For more information, click here, to listen to Karla Jacobs interview founder Jeff Shaw in an IWF podcast.