Elizabeth Melendez Fisher: The fight againt human trafficking & sexual exploitation
It’s not every day that you meet people who give of themselves 100% to a cause. To eat, breath and sleep your mission, is very rare to say the least. I had the honor to sit down with Elizabeth Melendez Fischer, co-founder of Selah Freedom. Elizabeth shared with me many personal stories as well as her work and mission to eradicate sex trafficking. This inspirational story will have you wanting to get involved in some capacity. I know I am!
OR: Tell us about Selah Freedom and the work of the organization.
EMF: Selah Freedom has become the nation’s leading service provider to young AMERICAN girls that have been sexually abused and in attempt to run to freedom, run into the arms of predators and are sold into sex trafficking. We confront this issue through our four programs, Awareness, Outreach, where we created court diversion programs and train and partner with law enforcement and U.S. and State attorneys, we also do Safe Housing for Victims and Prevention for at-risk kids and adults of all ages.
Needless to say, I am thrilled that we are able to help thousands of our own American kids and young ladies each year who have had so much stolen. I’m also excited that we keep growing. We now have the highest level of outcomes and standards in Selah Freedom’s safe housing, jail and court diversion programs. These programs literally remove unjust felonies from girls that were sold against their will and charged. We also now have a national prevention program to get ahead of it for boys and girls and have created a network of the BEST PROVIDERS in the nation.
OR: How did you become the co-founder of Selah Freedom?
EMF: I was simply trying to help launch a women’s event and was looking for a very deserving charity to be the beneficiary. Our goal was to find something that wasn’t at the top of everyone’s radar, but rather a serious need that needed to be brought to the light. We were looking for a true underdog to help. That’s when we were told that our own American children were being sold for sex. And when I learned more about what that truly meant and the root of childhood sexual abuse and that our own American kids who were running away were being sold for sex on the street on average 15-40 times a day, I asked, “Who can we write a check to?” This was the worst thing I’d ever heard. They simply said, no one was doing anything about it, there’s no one to write a check to. Through that, Selah Freedom was birthed.
OR: Can you share one specific success story that has touched you personally?
EMF: Fortunately, there have been many success stories but the story of Abby, a
foster care kid taken from her mom after sexual abuse began at age 3, raped by her step dad at age 7, which she contracted a sexual disease, stands out! No 7-year old should ever encounter this in her lifetime! In foster care, she was abused, raped and used weekly. At 14, she found herself pregnant from a rape, yet something in her wanted to preserve that life and she entered a teen pregnancy center and encountered a counselor who for the first time felt like love to her. Short lived, she gave up that baby for adoption and returned to her life. Abby graduated from foster care and high school which was a huge accomplishment. 50% of foster care kids will never graduate from high school or obtain a GED. And only 15% of foster children, will attend college and fewer than 3% will earn a college degree. Abby, however, was exceptional and gifted. But upon graduating and wanting to leave her abusive foster care system, she looked for a place to go. Her friend, who had left the foster care system before her, assured her the home she found with some “great guys” who wanted to take care of them was the best option. To make this short, they loved on her for a few weeks, which we call grooming, then she was asked to dance at their buddy’s strip club to help with rent, which progressed to back room favors or abuse. And she found herself full out on the street, being sold for sex for these men.
That is when she tried to take her life and was Baker Acted. Upon her release, the social worker said there was nowhere to send her. You see, there are homeless beds, addiction beds, but very few homes for sex trafficking survivors. Thankfully, right at that time of hopelessness when she thought she would return to those men, her case worker discovered a new program had launched, Selah Freedom and they treated sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking! She was amazed and hoped she would qualify.
That phone call Abby had to make to our first intake worker was a powerful story. The Selah Freedom Intake counselor who took Abby’s call that day was the very case worker who five years earlier, represented love to her at the teen pregnancy center. As she started to share her story, our intake worker, breathless and in awe said, “Abby, do you remember me? Its Allie!” After a few moments of shock, Abby cried and asked Allie if she can live with her. Abby was one of our fist residents. She now lives on the east coast and is graduating college this year with a Bachelors of Social Work defying all odds of foster care girls! She’s brilliant and resilient! Because of her time at Selah Freedom, she was able to be reunited with her daughter she gave up at 14!
I love this story! And I hope it educates about how a life can be impacted and changed and even more, I hope to inspire others to get involved!
OR: WOW! Why do you think these young women shut-down and not tell anybody, even those close to them what they have experienced?
EMF: Speaking as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I know that many girls carry that shame and guilt deep inside for years, it’s a painful secret. Most young women would rather keep their abuse buried rather than naming it and bringing it to the surface because they are afraid of not being believed and they’ve been groomed to think that the abuse was somehow their fault. That is what is happening now in our culture with the #MeToo movement and is so inspiring. Voices are finally starting to be heard and secrets brought to the light.
OR: Where do you see the future of Selah Freedom heading as your great work has now expanded globally?
EMF: When the other founders and I launched Selah Freedom, we knew we would create what is now known as the premiere standard of outcomes and measurement to truly impact sex trafficking, but we also had the clear vision that at some point, we would launch another foundation to be THE VETTED place to give to this movement to impact domestic sex trafficking. Donors care so much about this movement, yet they have a hard time discerning who is really doing the work, not just talking about their desire to do so. We get calls monthly asking us to train or take over programs that can’t steward with success the assets that have been given to them. We are asked to intervene, which we love! So, NOW, I am thrilled that we are launching the Selah Way Foundation. https://www.selahfreedom.com/selahwayfoundation
The Selah Way Foundation is a network of leading anti-sex trafficking service providers dedicated to eradicating this issue on a global scale. By locking arms with well vetted, expert organizations in this movement, The Selah Way Foundation creates a solid system of care for survivors of sex trafficking. By the end of 2018, The Selah Way Foundation will reach its goal of raising $15 million (and by 2020, $55 million) to fuel its three initiatives: Prevention, Protection and Provision. These three initiatives will aggressively expand to eradicate sex trafficking on a global scale. I was in New Zealand last month educating and collaborating with their law enforcement and Selah Freedom is going to be training them to help protect, identify and intervene with the at-risk runaways there.
This unique Foundation will fund the expansion and ongoing success of Selah Freedom along with other nationally-renown organizations, which will lock arms to provide the highest level of continuity of scope of services, outcomes and measurements. I could not be more thrilled, as this is truly creating a much-needed system to provide solutions and save lives exponentially!
OR: As a woman in a powerful position, how do you plan to use your voice and experience to bring this organization to the next level?
EMF: I can honestly say that I am using my voice every day to bring awareness to the epidemic happening in America with our own children becoming victims and the consumers not even realizing that they are purchasing our own abused children and using them for sex. I feel like every time I speak, I empower women who have kept their own secrets to take a step into their own freedom and take a stand as advocates even though nobody was there to stand for them. I feel every time we move forward in any arena, it is an awakening and we are rising up as an army.
My passion is to awaken all to understand that we were all groomed for something and realizing our own secrets we carry, is the first step. Through awareness and giving voice to the unspeakable we can change direction, break patterns and become advocates, not only for ourselves but others.
OR: How active are your board members and how has their support propelled the success of the organization?
EMF: Our board members are valuable in a variety of different ways. For example, one of them was aware of an organization that was not having success with a home, but it would be perfect to use as a safe house. She was instrumental in getting that entire 7,700 square foot home donated to Selah Freedom debt free and raising up hundreds of stakeholders to take on the initiative and join our team. Each Board Member has a required giving amount but it’s not just about giving, it’s about doors they can open. We are looking to expand our board nationally and for Selah Freedom and the Selah Way Foundation. If people would like to learn more and get involved they can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
OR: Do you see yourself advocating for this cause in Washington?
EMF: We definitely have a presence in Washington D.C. I have testified to Congress before on the issue and we are constantly in the conversations to try and divert funds to our own American children versus strictly to funding international anti-sex trafficking and we are active in helping to shape policy.
I was speaking to one of our partners at the FBI and they were saying that they are very excited about the work we are doing and the bringing together of the Selah Way Foundation because Americans are not aware of just how horrific the extent of this issue is. They said that they hold this at their highest level of concern and attention and that the only other issue, because of its pervasiveness, that they hold at this high level of concern is terrorism. The FBI holds child sex trafficking at the same level of severity as terrorism. Americans need to know that.
OR: If you can have one very special person involved with the organization, who would it be and why?
EMF: J. Stuart Moore, Founder of Sapient Technology. A few years ago, Stuart asked for a meeting with me. He said he had been watching our organization and growth and that we were like the “Google of Not for Profits” and he shared that Selah reminded him of how he built Sapient. You can imagine my surprise and delight when he said he wanted to mentor and invest in us as we were about to launch our second market. He said over 90% of second markets fail and if we could nail our second market, we could have 50. He redid our business plan and put up a matching gift and the rest is history. He has been mentoring us monthly since then, investing in every aspect of our day to day operations and culture. It is inspiring to sit under someone that grew their business from start up to billions and who sees the same DNA in yours. I’m thrilled to say that we now have the ability to scale like a Starbucks, with the heart and soul of Selah staying intact. We have templatized all and provide the same stellar outcomes. Stuart’s investment has not only impacted our programming and effectiveness but having him as our mentor and Advisory Board Emeritus, speaks volumes in the realm of credibility. When a man like that puts his name on what you are building, you know you are exactly where you should be. We are blown away with gratitude for his commitment and guidance. I think one of the most rewarding things is that we can see how his involvement moves him, as if growing us brings him back to the sweetest success of his life. His stories carry such emotion and it has become evident that his giving back to Selah Freedom has had major impact on his own life. We say we bring greater freedom and life to all, to see his joy in helping us save lives is one of the my most inspiring encounters.
OR: You often use the term “We were all groomed for something.” What do you mean by that?
EMF: One of my greatest passions is helping awaken not only women but also men to the voices and the situations and circumstances that groomed us. If you look closely at what we are doing in our culture today, where the average age for boys to be exposed to pornography is 8 years old and 1 out of 3 girls and 1 out of 5 boys, are sexually abused. We are raising kids, who now, as research is showing are having the neuropathways in their brains reformed to have addiction to different levels of porn. They are growing up in a world where it’s normal to have an online interaction for sex versus getting to know a girl and hoping to take that next step in a relationship at the appropriate age. Now, they are having a crash entry and being exposed to violent and deviant sex and all kinds of things through the use of the internet. And unfortunately, boys and girls are keeping secrets, not only of hidden addiction but of abuse, so when each of them watch these different ways that sex is portrayed and the different voices that tell them not to say anything, we are literally grooming a culture that is incapable of intimacy without immediate intervention.
OR: If you had advice to give women and young girls, what would it be?
EMF: I would encourage mothers to speak every bit of the secrets that they hoped nobody would ever find out about themselves to their daughters and their sons. What I have found from my over 25 years in this line of work, is that whatever family secrets we want to hide or whatever it is that we feel embarrassed of, our own abuse and situations that have happened to us that we hope will never be found out, those are the very things that get repeated in families.
I find again and again that a mother will find out that her daughter has experienced the exact same thing. It’s almost as if the power of the spoken word, the power of bringing it to the light does something to actually stop the process of being repeated generationally. What I do know, is that whatever you keep in the dark, secrets and patterns that you hope will never be passed down, are 100% passed down unless they are spoken about and you take a stand to say “No More!”
OR: Where do you see Selah Freedom/Selah Way Foundation in 10 years?
EMF: My goal is to have Selah Freedom be one of the many partners that’s under the vetted Selah Way Foundation.
We are currently launching with six vetted partners, working hand in hand with the best minds around the country providing service to this population. There’s no competition there’s only collaboration. My goal in ten years would be to grow that network to 250 million dollars strong and to have hundreds of thousands of children saved and served.
The number right now of children who are vulnerable to sex trafficking each year in America is over 300,000. I would like to know that we’ve already reached millions through our Prevention Program and helped intervene in the lives of hundreds of thousands of at-risk kids. I want to grow those programs so strong that we actually see a decline in the need for safe houses. Right now, we have to provide safe housing because the points of intervention to save our own American kids is missed every step of the way. In 10 years, I hope to see a network so strong and thriving so cohesively that we are able to shut down safe houses and focus solely on prevention because our country has gotten so healthy and unified in having a voice to protect our youth.
OR: What an inspirational story and incredible woman! WOW! It was such a pleasure getting to know you and we look forward to seeing the many great things that Selah Freedom will continue to do to impact the young victims of sex trafficking.
EMF: Thank you so much for taking the time to share my story and I look forward to seeing you again soon.
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