In 2008, after having graduated from college with a degree in English, I took a position teaching at an IB boarding school in Northern Thailand. I was teaching Literature to students from all over the world. I felt lucky for such an opportunity, lucky for an adventure across the globe. I was 21 and very eager to grow.
I began working on the weekends at various homeless youth shelters as a faculty supervisor for students who needed volunteer hours in order to graduate. After months spent in classrooms during the week and volunteering on the weekends, I began to look forward to my weekends at shelter more than work come Monday, so packed up, came back stateside and began what would turn into three years serving as an AmeriCorps in sustained poverty.
My work as an AmeriCorps has exposed me to the systematic degradation of youth in a manner I never thought plausible having a background only in British literature and a little light college volunteer work under my belt. Youth in the US, from the US, being trafficked, across state lines by supposed employers promising wages and opportunity, but delivering neither. I have worked with youth sold by their parents, pimped out to strangers, forced to survive in whatever means possibly on the streets, youth being exploited by family, by boyfriends, by their communities who provide few services to address issues of vulnerability.
Even within social services agencies there is often a misconception about trafficking and exploitation. Too little education exists amongst service providers. I have spent years feeling like the youth I work with have no one who can effectively navigate the situations and trauma they have experienced and there are not enough venues to address the under education of exploitation that is experienced by our community’s most vulnerable youth.
When I was approached about working at Prax(us), and serving my third year as an AmeriCorps, I didn’t think I could. I stand firmly behind the mission and I support the work, but I believed I was tired, that I had served long enough, and that I may not be able to do another term of AmeriCorps for all that it entails. AmeriCorps is not often an easy program, many terminate early due to the hardships of sustained poverty, the workload that is often asked of them, and the difficulty in being exposed daily to the traumas of those we work with. I sat on the offer for nearly a week. I feel like I spent hours doing endless calculations to see if I could pay by bills on an AmeriCorps salary. I made pro con lists. I debated. I came to the simple answer that what was most important to me was that I do something meaningful, something that aligned with my values.
I wanted to be involved with an agency more radical in their ideology than I had been previously. Prax(us) only does meaningful, social justice based, radical work. So, I accepted.
Prax(us) is one of the only agencies in the area who is addressing the lack of education around issues of domestic trafficking and exploitation. We are the only agency working with domestic youth who are in or are vulnerable to trafficking. Every day we work with youth who are facing great adversity and we do so from a social justice, harm reduction lens allowing youth to access services at any point and not only once they reach a goal of sobriety, safety, etc.. Prax(us) understands that leaving a harmful situation is a highly complicated process and takes time, patience, understanding, and support that comes from relationships with providers, not an overnight change. Our mission is to end human trafficking by addressing the root causes of exploitation by creating systemic change and providing direct services through a comprehensive street outreach program.
I am so grateful to be working at Prax(us). I am endlessly thankful for the ability to contribute to the community and for the opportunity to support such important work. I am thankful for the experience of AmeriCorps and the years I have spent serving to address change. Mostly though, I am grateful to have been changed by this experience.
We are small. We are a grassroots agency working to combat the exploitation of youth in our community. When I tell people about the work that Prax(us) does I am always impressed that I am also able to say that we currently have only three staff members and a handful of volunteers and interns to do all of the work necessary to address the needs of local youth. Even with a small staff, Prax(us) is doing truly amazing work. Outreach workers are on the streets daily talking to youth who are in or are vulnerable to trafficking. Our street outreach workers carry massive bags filled with everything they think they may need, water bottles, snacks, wound care kits, etc. anyone would be impressed if they saw the massive size of these backpacks that overflow with supplies and are carried for miles upon miles every day on foot. We provide everything from referrals to clean dry socks and underwear, food, water, and harm reduction kits (e.g. bleaching kits for I.V. drug use and safe sex items like condoms and information on HIV/STI testing). Last year, Prax(us)’s Street Outreach Program conducted outreach to nearly 900 youth and helped 21 youth leave trafficking situations. The impact of having street outreach is enormous.
I am so grateful to work with an agency that stands behind its values, that wants to continue making meaningful changes towards being fully constituent lead, because only folks who have experienced the same vulnerability and exploitation of the youth with whom we work will truly understand the importance of what we do. We are moving towards hiring one of the youth organizers that we work with as a part time outreach worker, and this is a very important step for us. In order for Prax(us) to continue the vital work that we perform in the community, we need to continue growing.
Finding support for the work we do can be hard. While anti-human trafficking work is certainly an easy sell, finding funding can also sometimes feel impossible. We do work that no one else is doing. We don’t fit the norm for the anti-trafficking movement. I want us to be able to grow, to have support doing so. I want the community to rise up and say that they believe constituent leadership is vital and worth sustaining. I want you to know that supporting us today means that we are closer to our goal of hiring a constituent in January. I want you to know that any gift can make an impact on the youth we serve.
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