Karen Amerson said she was stunned and brokenhearted by the trafficking of women she witnessed during a mission trip to Ethiopia in 2009.
She said she was even more shocked to learn that the same thing was happening to young girls in her hometown, and worse, that many of these victims have children who are destined to grow up and become victims or pimps themselves.
Amerson, a Martinez resident, founded iCare4, a faith-based organization to shelter and help victims of trafficking, and to care for their children while they heal.
The organization has a three-pronged mission: intervention by identifying women and reaching out to girls who are at risk, restoration through refuge and helping victims transform their lives, and prevention by caring for victims’ children and attempting to keep them from falling back into that lifestyle.
The idea came to her two months after she returned from the mission trip. She began working with a young woman and over time, learned that she was a victim of sex trafficking. Within nine months she met five more girls, and they all had similar stories.
The girls had been sexually abused at home, and then they began to be sold for sex. All but one of the women had children.
“That’s where we got the vision that there’s going to be a lot of women like this,” she said. “When these women come in for restoration, they’re going to need a safe place for their children.”
iCare4 currently runs a program called Teen Mothers of Preschoolers, or MOPS, that meets on Monday nights for Bible study and life skills classes. Participants aren’t always victims of trafficking, but have been identified as being at-risk. They are served a meal, and childcare is provided. A Teen MOPS closet offers participants diapers or children’s clothing and other necessities.
“We want to encourage them just to see that there is a different side to this life they’re living,” said MOPS director Linda Goble.
Amerson, Goble and a team of 16 professionals from sectors such as business, faith, education, social work, law enforcement and law returned from a recent training session with Shared Hope International in Washington, D.C., to learn about warning signs of sex trafficking.
In addition, iCare4 is working with schools and civic organizations to raise awareness.
Goble said while some victims are kidnapped, many more are coerced.
“The perpetrators know exactly how to prey on these young girls,” Goble said. “They’re watching them. They’re everywhere watching your young kids. Those that are vulnerable, low self esteem, from a bad family, whatever. They know what to say to them. They know what to offer them. That’s why we’ve got to get into the schools.”
She said many people mistakenly think that women in prostitution or pornography are there by choice when the reality is that they don’t have a choice. A small group of men involved with iCare4, called Defenders, are working to dispel the myth.
“Some men are walking around thinking that this is the girls’ choice. I think that same thought process makes men think they’re buying sex, that it’s OK because the girl chose it,” Amerson said. “A lot of girls that are in these pornographic movies and pictures are being forced to do it.”
A victim sees herself as a sex object, and Amerson’s mission is to show her that she is much more than that.
“That’s why we want the restoration home so bad,” she said.
There victims will learn skills that will help them succeed in their new lives.
The organization is currently raising money for land on which to build River Tree Ranch, a facility that includes one house for victims who are going through restoration and a second house for children. With two houses and a highly trained staff, victims can be near their children as they go through restoration, while still having the time they need to focus on their own healing, Amerson said.
Building materials have been donated and Wendell Price Construction will build the homes as soon as iCare4 purchases the land.
“We just really believe we’re supposed to do that land with cash,” Amerson said. “We’re working on sustainability, so we want to be debt-free when it opens.”