The practice of selling young girls for sex is not often associated with Contra Costa County, but a nonprofit organization looking to rescue victims says it is more prevalent than people think.
"A lot of people have no clue this modern-day slavery is happening," said Debra Brown, founder of the East Contra Costa-based nonprofit Pillars of Hope. "When you think about human trafficking, you think of Third World¿ countries or cities with port entries. But, we're finding out more and more in the news that it's happening in our own backyard."
There has been an increase in the number of human-trafficking cases in Contra Costa Superior Court in the past year, said deputy district attorney Chad Mahalich.
"I don't necessarily know if it's happening more, but there's a lot more understanding of what it is and all the underworkings," he said. "It's not just on one track anymore; it's everywhere."
Since starting in September 2010, Pillars of Hope has been trying to raise awareness about the issue through fundraisers, guest-speaking engagements and working with like-minded groups in the region -- all the while working to create a facility that allows those rescued an opportunity to heal.
Pillars of Hope works closely with the county's Zero Tolerance Coalition.
"They've been a great partner and very engaged as the coalition tries to work on protocols, policies and procedures. We've all been really kind of on the ground in trying
Community Violence Solutions identified 25 victims it helped last year who had been sexually exploited, Peterson said. The county does not have one group or person that collects data on the number of victims.
Pillars of Hope is looking to secure grant funding to purchase a property in Contra Costa County that could house six to eight girls. Brown envisions one day purchasing about 40 acres in a remote area for a larger center to help more victims.
"Our goal is to provide healing and a place to go, while showing (the victims) that there is another life out there," Brown said. "It's sorely needed; there's no place like that in the Bay Area, and I've only heard of about six in the entire country."
Brown, a retired X-ray technician, had no prior experience with the human-trafficking issue but says she was inexplicably inspired to create the nonprofit while recovering from a near-death experience during a medical procedure. The vision for the work came to her as some sort of divine intervention, she says.
"I did not know about human-trafficking other than the movie Taken," Brown said.
Valerie Fee, acquaintances through their children's school, is motivated for more personal reasons. Her father got her involved in prostitution at a young age, she said.
"Working on this project has done more for me than all the years in therapy," Fee said.
The location of the healing facility would remain undisclosed so pimps would not be able to find their victims. Each girl would have an individual plan to address her physical, psychological, educational and spiritual needs, Brown said. Other issues that could come into play include immigration status, language needs and legal help.
"What's good about that idea is that a lot of time (the girls) get brainwashed and end up going back because they don't have anywhere they can go," Mahalich said.
Pillars of Hope lost the one teenager it attempted to help for that reason.
"She seemed like she was getting her act together, but without that healing and a physical home, unfortunately, she wound up back on the streets," Brown said.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.
What: Pillars of Hope fundraiser spaghetti dinner
When: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday
Where: First Family Church, 3415 Oakley Road, Antioch
Cost: Dinner tickets $10. Tickets must be purchased in advance by Wednesday. Raffle tickets will also be sold for $5 or 3 for $10.
More information: Call 925-457-3977 or visit www.pillarsofhope.us.