On the Top 20 list of most vulnerable cities for sex trafficking, St. Louis comes in eighteenth. For anyone who hasn’t experienced sex trafficking, that number might seem foreign or incomprehensible. But for many women in St. Louis, it’s a dark reality. One that a local non-profit, Bravely, works to counteract.
Women who have experienced both sexual exploitation and narcotic or alcohol abuse can apply to live in the Bravely house for up to two years. Throughout their time there, the women are guided through a healing and recuperation process that involves group and individual therapy, job training and other life skills to help them get back on their feet and successfully re-enter society.
A fairly comprehensive program, the women are totally provided for throughout their stay at the house, room, board and medical care, both physical and mental. For the first sixth months, they are unable to hold jobs in order to focus entirely on the healing process. The aim here is to address trauma in the women’s lives, both from addiction and sexual exploitation but also underlying childhood traumas that may never have been addressed.
“Your chances of staying in recovery are a lot less if you don’t deal with the underlying problems, cause they’re gonna resurface,” commented Gretchen Nichols, the Development Manager at Bravely. This is precisely why the trauma therapy is such an integral part of the program, she said.
According to a scientific study by the Kaiser Permanente and the CDC, unaddressed traumatic childhood events can lead to mental health issues, substance abuse, and even early death later in life. The more “adverse childhood events,” or ACEs, an individual has, as measured on a scale of 1 to 10, the more social and physical problems emerge later in life. When assessed a few years ago, the women at Bravely had an average score of 9. Out of 10.
Luckily for them, the team at Bravely is devoted to helping them work through these traumas, and Nichols said they are about to celebrate their third graduate of the program since its opening in 2015 (under the name Magdalene St. Louis). Graduation, she explained, means that an individual has completed her entire two-year stay, though not everybody does for various reasons.
“Some leave for good reasons. They can’t have their children when they’re here, so if they have children and they’re doing pretty well, they want to go back to their children,” she said. “And then unfortunately, as is the nature of the business, some people relapse. They go back to drug use or alcohol use and have to leave the house. That’s an automatic out.”
But still Nichols remains optimistic about the work Bravely does. This Thursday, the team will host a luncheon where they will give awards to women and organizations in St. Louis who “have strengthened our community by bringing attention to social justice issues including sexual exploitation, abuse and addiction.” Proceeds of the luncheon directly benefit the women living in the Bravely house.
When asked about what she thinks people most misunderstand most about trauma, Nichols said, “I think people tend to say, ‘Well everyone has hard times in life, and I didn’t go down that path, so why did they?’ But I don’t think they understand the effects of the buildup of trauma that’s never healed. All those things just keep kind of heaping on top of each other. And as a result, some people turn to drugs and alcohol. That’s unfortunately a common thing when people are in pain… It all goes back to your support system. If you had all those things, if you had good support, you might not chosen drugs and alcohol.”