This is not the first time she has gotten into a car to be taken Lord knows where. She can hardly imagine what is waiting for her at the end of the gravel road or who could get past the locked gate and the security cameras to find her.
But it is a far cry from the place where she has moved from one hotel to the next, high on drugs and having to sell her body to satisfy her dealer.
It is Cry Freedom. At this safe house in rural Greene County, women rescued from sex trafficking can begin their journey of restoration.
“If I find a girl today and I meet her today, I’m going to bring her here first,” Beverly Weeks, executive director of the Goldsboro-based Cry Freedom Missions, said as she led a tour of the nonprofit’s new property. “It’s a safe place for me to get her off the street, get her out of danger.”
Nine months ago, the property had faced a crisis of its own. After years of fundraising, planning and preparation, the Anchor House, built as a rehabilitation center for boys rescued from sex trafficking, had failed to launch. The board of directors for the nonprofit Restore One ministry was left with the task of dismantling the organization and donating its assets, including the 10-acre campus.
“There was a moral imperative,” former Restore One President Mike Eggleston said. “It’s a nonprofit. It doesn’t belong to us. We are just the stewards of it.”
At least 40 organizations expressed an interest in acquiring the property, where Restore One had managed to construct a main building and a cottage with a total estimated value of more than $800,000, all debt-free. More than two dozen area nonprofits submitted formal applications. Five, including Cry Freedom, were invited to interview.
The vote was unanimous.
“Cry Freedom was the one that could use the property as an emergency safe home for exploited, trafficked victims,” Eggleston said. “It was just such a great fit for what we wanted to see.
“They brought a couple of victims with them who have been rehabilitated, who are in the process of getting their life back on track.”
Sold for sex
One of the women the ministry has helped is Ashley. She was introduced to Cry Freedom in March 2018, as she sat in the Wayne County Detention Center after wrecking her car during a high-speed chase with police. The 38-year-old former cheerleader wasn’t wearing a seat belt when her car rolled three times. She was not sure how she survived the accident.
It was not her first brush with death. In eight years of being trafficked, she had once woken up in a hospital where nurses told her she had lay frozen to death on the side of the road for 20 minutes before anyone found her. Another time, she had jumped out of a car at a stoplight to flee from her armed trafficker.
She got away but couldn’t escape her drug addiction, which always kept her in debt to the dealers who sold her for sex.
“Most of the time, I was kept so high that I didn’t realize these people have this business where they’re selling girls,” she said. “I might not have been handcuffed or chained up or those horror stories that you see. Until I got sober and really took a look at what was happening to me, I didn’t understand what was going on and that it was human trafficking, but it was. It definitely was.”
Weeks hasn’t always recognized the signs of sex trafficking herself. But in 2015, three years after beginning work at the Wayne Pregnancy Center, she began to notice an unusual pattern among some women coming in for free pregnancy tests.
Almost always accompanied by men when they visited the center, these women could not produce proper identification and struggled to answer basic questions, such as listing their addresses on the center’s intake forms.
One day, one of those women who had been dropped off at the center asked Weeks for a ride home. It was a short drive, but it took Weeks to a place she never imagined.
“I took her back to a low-end hotel,” Weeks recalled. “When I went in what I saw that day changed and revolutionized everything for me. She was surrounded by a group of men. Her pocketbook and her ID had been taken from her, and it was very obvious that she was being prostituted, that she was involved in sex trafficking.”
That encounter was the inspiration for Cry Freedom Missions. Weeks and co-worker Jonathan Chavous kept their jobs at Wayne Pregnancy Center but also began a ministry centered on befriending these women.
They returned to that hotel and others to offer free pregnancy tests or screenings for sexually transmitted diseases. They sometimes left food or toiletry items, working to build trust and to convey the message that anybody who’d had their fill of living this way and was ready to get clean could call them for help.
“We go into hotels all across eastern North Carolina that are known for prostitution, that are known for drug addiction, that are known as possible sites of sex trafficking,” Weeks said. “We go into strip clubs, we go down into vacant homes, we go out to street parks. ... That was how we were able to identify a lot of those women.
“It’s all about relationships until she can trust you to say, ‘Yes, I want you to get me to safety.’”
It is dangerous work. When the two have showed up before dawn to bring a trafficking victim to safety, they have sometimes been met by pimps not willing to let their livelihood simply walk out the door.
“We both have children; Jonathan’s a pastor,” Weeks said. “We could be safe at our homes. But these are somebody’s sons, these are somebody’s grandsons, these are somebody’s daughters, these are somebody’s granddaughters.
“And if it weren’t for the grace of God, could this very well be your daughter or your son or my daughter or my son?” she asked. “And if we don’t go, who will?”
Weeks recalls helping a young woman from Greenville who became addicted to meth after her boyfriend introduced her to the drug in college. Her dependency got her kicked out of her parents’ home because they worried she would introduce the drugs to her younger siblings.
“She ended up homeless,” Weeks said. “At a hotel she met a couple who invited her to stay with them. They injected her with a needle. They started sex trafficking her.”
Another young woman told Weeks a story of how she grew up lacking confidence, so much so that she carved the words “fat” and “ugly” on her arm. She later met a man on social media who suggested that they meet at a hotel. He drugged her drink, then brought in men and charged them to have sex with her.
The first woman Cry Freedom helped had been forced into prostitution at age 7 by her drug-addicted mother.
“People just view prostitutes as ‘They want to do that. That’s just something they chose to do,’” said Chavous, a husband and father of five. “If you’re a 6-, 7-, 8-year-old, you didn’t choose that. That’s just all you know.”
That wasn’t Ashley’s story. She recalls a fairly traditional early childhood with her parents and brothers. But by middle school, Ashley had found a crowd of friends that didn’t meet her parents’ approval. She started smoking marijuana by age 13. By the time she was a young adult, she had moved on to other drugs. Family members made multiple attempts to help her overcome her addiction. Her parents were raising her son, and one of her brothers was raising her daughter. But by the time Ashley was 29, they had washed their hands of her.
When a longtime friend sent for her and offered her a place to stay, she thought he was interested in a relationship. But when she arrived at his hotel, she found him in a room with four other women.
“I quickly realized what was going on,” she said. “(But) because I did not have anywhere else to go and I was still in active addiction, I stayed.”
She later escaped her trafficker, but her addiction kept her indebted to others like him.
“Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Oh, I want to be a prostitute’ or ‘I want to be a drug addict today’ or ‘Oh, I think I’ll just ruin my family today,’” Ashley said. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says that’s their dream.”
By the time Ashley found Cry Freedom Missions, she had been living in the nightmare of trafficking for eight years. Actually, the ministry found her while she was in jail.
Weeks and Chavous find that when trafficking victims are serving time, it gives Cry Freedom a chance to put some distance between them and their traffickers. The ministry offers classes at Wayne County Detention Center once or twice a week, teaching women (and men) math and English or offering tips on parenting, job hunting and healthy relationships.
“We introduce the Lord to them, too,” Chavous said. “The Gospel is that he loved you even when you were unlovable. He cared for you even when you were yet an enemy. You were untouchable, unlovable, unreachable. That becomes a hallmark of something that’s very real.”
What made it real to Ashley was when Weeks showed up the day Ashley was released from prison.
“Beverly told me that if I was ready for a change and if I didn’t want to go back to my abusers and my drug dealers that she would be there for me,” she said. “I’ve heard that before, but I really believed it was true when I was released from jail and she was waiting at the door.”
Weeks took her shopping for clothes and bought her a meal. She helped Ashley get in touch with her mother and then drove her to a Christian rehabilitation center near the coast.
“Out of the girls that I was in jail with, there were six of us that I was very close with,” Ashley said. “We all went at about the same time, we were all released about the same time, we were all in the same kind of lifestyle. Two of us have made it out, two are dead, and two are back out on the streets.”
Nearly all of the more than two dozen women and two men Cry Freedom has rescued have needed a stay in a rehabilitation center to break free from a life of trafficking. Substance abuse is almost a guarantee among victims the ministry has served.
After rehabilitation, trafficking survivors are taken to safe houses in other communities where Cry Freedom has established partnerships. Sometimes survivors have been sent out of state to ensure they are safe from their former captors.
During recovery, the women receive continued counseling and job skills training. They earn $10 an hour making jewelry and other gift items that are sold at the Cry Freedom Missions Shop in Goldsboro to support the ministry. They are invited to remain in the program for up to two years.
The former Restore One property is not where they will stay long term. The cottage is designed to be an emergency shelter where women can live — with staff supervision — while they wait for an opening in a drug rehabilitation center or safe house. It keeps Cry Freedom from having to house survivors in hotels, which can be traumatic for someone who has a history of being trafficked.
The home is a much more private setting, situated behind a locked gate and equipped with security cameras.
“We’re really calling it a safe place because they’ve never known a safe place,” Chavous said. “They’ve never known a place of rest. We’re out here in the country where it’s quiet, it’s very secluded. It’s peaceful.”
Though Chavous and Weeks have never met Restore One’s founders and have had limited interaction with the board since the interview, they feel that, in some ways, they are accomplishing the mission that was started here.
“We feel like we’re carrying along their dream, what they dreamed for the property,” Weeks said. “It may look just a little different, but we feel like we’re carrying on that same mission, that same vision that they had originally many years ago.”
Though saddened that Restore One, the ministry where he volunteered as president for a year, never realized its goals, Eggleston is at peace with the outcome.
“I am convinced that my role was to help find the ministry that could take this wonderful, beautiful property and use it for its intended purpose,” he said. “I don’t necessarily love how we got there, but I have been shown time and time again that this is how God works, and it’s all for ultimately for his glory.”
For more information about Cry Freedom Missions, visit cryfreedommissions.com.