“Satan loves me more.” A disillusioned, sexually exploited teenage girl wrote that line in a journal after she was rescued from the streets of Phoenix.
Her parents had been heavily involved in drugs, and her mother was the one who first arranged for men to take her daughter’s body. The girl was only 12 years old at that time.
“Why should I trust you?” the girl wrote to her rescuers. “I couldn’t trust my own parents. My own mother I couldn’t trust. Everybody has done the same thing. They let me down in my life. Satan loves me more.”
This is the dark and difficult world Lea Benson stepped into when she signed on a couple of years ago as president and CEO of StreetlightUSA, a residential program for sexually exploited young women in Phoenix.
The girl with the journal got the help she needed there, and so do many other girls. But the problem is a tidal wave of sin, despair and need.
“There are from 200 to 300 girls on the streets of this city right now who are trapped as sex slaves,” Lea says. “They can be sold 10 to 20 times each day. Across the country, more than a quarter of a million young girls are victimized.”
Young women who have run away from abuse at home are seduced all too easily by traffickers who take advantage of their victims’ vulnerabilities. Soon after a teenager—or even a preteen—has been ensnared by a lie masked as a kind word or the offer of an appealing gift, she is forced to exchange sex for such basic necessities as food, shelter or even a hot shower.
Someone has to help. Starting in 2009, 70 churches of every type came together to provide a way of escape for young women trapped within the sinful schemes of others. These congregations include conservative Bible believers, evangelical megachurches, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. By 2011, they had raised $2.5 million to build the StreetLightUSA Center for Excellence and Treatment. This residential program gives girls a place to live, recover and rebuild their lives through counseling, education and, if they choose, faith.
The facility, which opened in January 2012, has six cottages that can house 40 to 60 girls a year. As more space is needed, more cottages are added. It’s the only center in the nation dedicated to housing teenagers who have been sexually exploited, Lea says. Girls are referred to the Phoenix center from as far away as New York, Florida and North Carolina, where there are no specific shelters for them. Police officers, non-governmental agencies, civic organizations and private placement agencies send girls there.
In honoring StreetLightUSA and everyone involved, Life:Beautiful is also recognizing the valuable contribution of many churches, Christian organizations and individual believers who have joined those addressing the problem of human trafficking and prostitution in the U.S. and around the world.
For Lea, working with the girls has been rewarding, though the opportunity emerged unexpectedly. Only a few weeks before she took the reins at StreetLightUSA in 2011, Lea had never heard of it.
“It’s amazing how God works in your life,” she says.
Lea believes the faith community has an obligation to help.
“A child has been hurt and damaged. She may be 16, but that damage may go back to when she was 12 or even younger. How can we not help girls in that situation?” she asks. “They are mentally and physically abused on a daily basis. What they are going through is not the normal life that Christ has intended for them.”
The Next Steps
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” Matthew 25:37–40 NIV.
What can any of us do to help the girls who find themselves alone and exploited on the streets of Phoenix and throughout the country? The Lord gave His followers direction when He identified Himself with the least among us.
When you help StreetLightUSA, you will be helping girls from Arizona and many other states to find a path forward. But as the program grows, the numbers of girls it is housing increases and financial needs grow, too. Among the many needs are continued cottage construction, daily meals, clothes, transportation and a long list of other things girls need. There is always a shortfall. Would you like to help?
Here are a few things you can do:
- Visit streetlightusa.org. You can learn more about the program and those that are under its shelter. Click on the “Take Action” button to link to educational information, ways to reach out to your church and ways to start a prayer team.
- Make it your goal to raise awareness. Host a screening of a documentary video for a church group. The video is available at the website for $20, of which $15 goes to StreetLightUSA.
- Help raise funds with a garage sale for the cause, encourage your church to put the program on its outreach budget, donate new computers to help with the girls’ educational needs or put together a benefit walk or similar activity to raise money for the shelter.
- Or find out about the needs of sexually exploited girls in your own community. As Christians, we must face the issue of human trafficking in our cities and towns and offer these young victims a way out.