Updated: Dec 21, 2021
"So exploitation end for one more girl."
You’ve read this quote before if you’ve received any communication from Wings of Refuge. It’s a reminder that our safe home is for up to five women at a time. Our new Transitional Living Center accommodates five additional women. Small numbers compared to the countless victims needing to be recovered, waiting for safety, kindness and restoration. But for those few at Wings, they are safe and not exploited: one woman, one day at a time.
I get this question often: is it worth it? The budget, the staff, the training, the fundraising? My answer is YES, a resounding YES. It is worth it for the one who is safe now and the many who are still being trafficked in the likely and unlikely places around us.
The following story illustrates how Wings and other anti-sex trafficking organizations reach beyond our walls and our cities to make an impact.
Paula Feltner, photographer and owner of Bricktown Bakery in Nevada, was encouraged by her daughter to learn more about sex trafficking. Paula spent an hour or two of her time listening to online training provided by Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit that works with law enforcement in the U.S. and overseas to free victims of sex trafficking and to provide aftercare for survivors. It was this training that prepared Paula for an experience that still leaves her tearful and unsettled.
“The training made me not drive away, it made me stay,” Paula remembers. Last fall Paula stopped at a rest area on Interstate 35 in Oklahoma after visiting her parents in Texas. “I was washing my hands in the bathroom and a woman came in holding some garments in front of her that had been torn off of her and she rushed to a stall. She was sobbing and upset and I was the only one in the restroom at the time and I asked her if she was okay.” The young woman told Paula she was fine and wanted to be left alone. “Obviously, you’re not okay,” Paula answered, “I’m not going anywhere, I can help you.” She refused Paula’s help and begged her to leave.
As Paula left she noticed two men within 20 ft of the restroom, who seemed nervous and out of place, like watchmen, she thought. Paula waited alone in her car but the young woman did not come out. “I decided to call 911 and they [the men] saw me get on my phone and they knew I had talked with her. They were watching me, and then an older woman came around the side of the building with some disheveled clothes and went into the restroom. I rolled down my window and I could hear the woman inside the restroom yelling at the woman with the clothes, saying ‘no, no’.” Paula suspected the young girl wasn’t cooperating and wanted to stay in the stall.
“It amazed me that nearly a dozen people came and left [the restroom]… except for one mother and her daughter. They pulled up beside me in my car and I warned them that a woman may be being trafficked in there,” Paula said. The pair decided not to use the restroom but were concerned about Paula’s safety and agreed to wait with her until law enforcement arrived. The mother and daughter were also approached by the woman sweeping who told them they should leave. They agreed with Paula she did not look like a state employee.
“The deputy finally showed up and asked me to fill out a one-page paper, which I did,” Paula remembered, “I was so outraged by his lack of urgency. He said, ‘Ma’am, we get these calls multiple times a day at rest areas.’”
Eventually, the young woman emerged from the restroom and told the deputy she had an altercation with her boyfriend in the truck parked behind the restroom and the nice lady that worked there was just trying to help her. The officer told Paula the woman was scratched up and probably would have a black eye. She didn’t want help, he said, and she did not want to file a report. His response, to Paula’s amazement, was “Yeah, this happens all the time.” The deputy did say other law enforcement were coming.
Paula reluctantly drove away, still very traumatized by the experience. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was praying that justice would happen and thanking the Lord for the opportunity. I was pretty broken as we all should be broken.”
As she reflects, Paula regrets not asking the deputy’s name so she could follow up. Were the men and older woman arrested? What happened to the young woman who was so distraught in the bathroom stall?
It wasn’t too much longer before Paula learned about Wings of Refuge. “Oh my goodness, there is something right here I can get involved with.”
Paula tells me this story as she is seated in her bakery in front of a large chalkboard wall with the heading, "Be grateful, GIVE THANKS, Eat pie".
She is thankful. Thankful she took the time to learn more about sex trafficking, thankful God used her knowledge to notice a suspicious situation and give her the boldness to do something about it. She encourages others to do the same: slow down, look around, pay attention to people and watch from a safe distance.
We at Wings, like so many other organizations in the battle against sex trafficking, know when we inform and educate our churches and communities, it makes an impression. Eyes are opened, senses sharpened and hearts burdened to “do something.”
Paula doesn’t know how the story ended for the young woman she encountered in the bathroom stall, and parts of her story may be discouraging, however, we remain hopeful. We're hopeful because education, training, and legislature continue to improve. For every setback, there is also a step forward. In 2020, we were able to sit down with Michael Ferjak, retired senior criminal investigator with the Iowa Department of Justice, as he spoke about Human Trafficking from a law enforcement perspective. He addresses the steps you can take if you see something. "If it doesn't look right, say something." He encourages you to make the call. He suggests that you first call 9-1-1, then call the Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888). Tune into that conversation HERE to learn more about what Human Trafficking looks like. At the 9:40 minute mark, you'll begin to hear encouraging stories of recovery, because someone made the call.
Once a recovery is made, restoration is possible. A survivor who comes to the Wings safe home may stay for a year, six months or six days. We, too, may not know how her story will end, but during the time her journey intersects with the Wings ministry, she is worth every board meeting, staff training and every budget meeting -- she is worth every moment.
Please pray about how God can use you “so exploitation ends for one more girl.”
By: Kay Rice, Board President