“In the movies, [human trafficking] is this big kidnapping situation. You’re taken away and never heard from again, but it’s not like that. It’s actually the complete opposite. Most of the time, it’s the people that you trust, love and confide in that lead you to ‘the life’.”
Olivia Reposa describes the reality of human trafficking not only through the lens of a professional case manager, but of a survivor. Reposa spent years in the vicious cycle of victimization, rehabilitation and retrafficking. Every time she attempted to save herself from “the life,” programs failed her, leaving her even more vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, victimization and subsequently, imprisonment. Her life drastically changed, however, upon the discovery of Survivor Ventures. “This program was one of the best programs out of the eight I tried,” explains Reposa. “This was the only one I completed successfully. I’ve got an apartment, I got married, I’ve maintained employment and recently came home from doing three years in prison last March. I’ve never felt like someone cared about me more than this program.”
Reposa now works as Survivor Ventures’ Employment Case Manager, alongside nonprofit Founder and Executive Director Tiffany McGee. McGee boasts over a decade of experience in Counter Human Trafficking initiatives carried out on international grounds and intelligence fields to more localized efforts with the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Taskforce. While on the taskforce, McGee met Sentoria Harold, the taskforce’s lead mental health provider. The two discussed their backgrounds in counter human trafficking efforts and discovered a number of discrepancies in victim care services. “We found that most organizations focused on the ‘feed, clothe, shelter’ model. While that’s great because it fulfills [victim’s] basic needs, we also saw victims go through these programs and get retrafficked,” says McGee. “At some point, the shelter has to end, and then the clothes and the food. So what’s left for people?”
McGee incorporated Survivor Ventures in 2018 to find the solution. The Norfolk-based nonprofit offers the support and services needed to help victims of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation to attain economic empowerment. Survivor Ventures launched its operations in 2019 on only $50,000 of individual donations. McGee, Harold and the rest of their team worked without pay for the first year, and McGee agreed to forego a salary until the organization recruited a team of five full-time employees, a goal that was reached with the recent additions of Reposa, Gwanda Marshall, housing case manager, and Amber Davies.
Like Reposa, Davies looks to her journey of escaping ‘the life’ to help participants of Survivor Ventures in her role as Program Director. Davies oversees the organization’s flagship program, Survivors to Entrepreneurs (S2E), as well as rental assistance programs, intensive community-based therapy and stipends for survivors in pursuit of educational or vocational training. While each program promotes success and self-sufficiency, they also allow for failure along the way, enabling participants to try again without fear of punitive measures. “Other programs create rules that someone has to follow perfectly and if they make one mistake, they’re out. How does that empower them?” asks Davies.
Using Reposa as an example, McGee says, “We didn’t help Olivia. We just lowered barriers so we could help herself.” Through its S2E program, Survivor Ventures works around barriers such as criminal records and financial instability to help participants gain employment and regain ownership of housing or mismanaged credit. Survivor Ventures partners with small businesses in an array of professional fields to hire survivors, not only so business owners can gain an extra hand in the busy phase of opening, but to give survivors the opportunity to hone skills that could lead to self-employment.
Once employed, Survivor Ventures pays 100% of participants’ wages for three months, at well above minimum wage, with continued support throughout their first nine months in the workforce. “We want all of our dollars to go into the pockets of survivors because if we don’t put money into the pockets of our participants, a pimp will,” says McGee.
While refining their professional skills, participants seek counsel from Harold to overcome the grief and guilt associated with victimization. Harold also performs informed trauma training to partnering employers to ensure victims are hired in safe and understanding work environments.
For Survivor Ventures, success is not determined by the number of people helped or dollars raised, but proof that the cycle of trafficking is broken.
How They Are Making a Difference
- In December 2019, the Office for Justice Programs and Office for Victims of Crime awarded Survivor Ventures the Field Generated Innovations in Human Trafficking Grant, a $900,000 award that allows the organization to run their S2E program with 12 survivors and 12 small business for three years.
- 100% of program participants secure long-term housing and pay their increasing portion of rent on time.
- Participants undergo a phased initial intake, allowing the Survivor Ventures staff to discover the specific needs of each participant
What You Can Do to Help
While volunteer opportunities are limited due to participant confidentiality, Survivor Ventures encourages monetary donations in support of its cause. The organization also benefits from the recruitment of small businesses in Coastal Virginia to join its list of partner employers.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, you can refer them directly to Survivor Ventures at 757-317-0352. You can also call 1-888-373-7888 or SMS: 2233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”).
SurvivorVentures.org | 757-317-0352