Human trafficking is a foreign concept to many. It’s easy to imagine human trafficking as a tragedy that simply doesn’t materialize on United States soil. Hollywood images of human trafficking usually entail foreigners kidnapped and trafficked across borders in Thailand, Africa or South America with machete-
holding drug lords threatening victims and killing anyone who defies their cause. Sadly, while some of that is true, you don’t have to cross an ocean to become a victim of human trafficking. It’s a problem occurring in cities all across our nation. And it’s a problem in Oklahoma.
Beautiful Dream Society (BDS) is a nonprofit organization that operates an emergency shelter that offers services to adult, female sex trafficking victims. As one of the only organizations of its kind in the state, BDS has served more than 50 female sex trafficking victims and their children since Oklahoma Executive Director, Sonya Martinez and team opened the Oklahoma City safe house in October 2013. In 2008, she founded a human trafficking prevention organization in Corpus Christi, Texas, where she worked as an associate pastor of Victory Church. She admits her calling is to help women know they are not alone. “I went through some pretty tough stuff and I did not have that person to come alongside me and say, ‘I believe you and I believe in you,’” she says.
Jennifer Crow, co-pastor of Oklahoma City Victory Church, originally founded Beautiful Dream Society in 2010 after she had a vivid dream about the country with the third highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world: Lesotho, Africa. She and Sonya Martinez took a trip to Lesotho to complete a human trafficking study in May 2010. Later that year, seven members of the Victory Church network moved to Lesotho to assist human trafficking victims. In April 2011, the Beautiful Dream Society Safe House for Victims of Human Trafficking opened as the first, and only, safe house in Lesotho where Martinez served as director. Soon after, the Beautiful Dream Village was opened to help care for Lesotho orphans. Martinez also opened a transition home in Lesotho where human trafficking survivors could learn job skills and receive educational assistance.
Beautiful Dream Society operates to help victims see their value as human beings and to provide love and acceptance where in place of judgment and misconception. From the time the victims arrive at the BDS safe house, they are given a professional counseling plan based on their individual needs. They are also provided clothing, food and a sense of togetherness. Tears and laughter are shared between the women as they set goals to free themselves from their emotional shackles and persevere to change their lives. “They are some of the most educated, smart women,” Martinez says. “They are resilient.”
Sex trafficking is defined as any “commercial sexual act induced by fraud, force or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.” According to Shared Hope International, most victims are entered into commercial sexual exploitation at age 13. The average age BDS serves in the safe house is 22. Many of the women were sexually abused as children or as young women and already suffer from low self-esteem. Martinez explains how victims are then hurdled into a dangerous co-dependent relationship, sexually exploited for money by the very person who promised them the moon and the stars. “You have a pimp who smooth-talks women and says, ‘I’ll take care of you,’” relates Martinez.
Oklahoma’s high divorce rate, absentee fathers and low socio-economic environments create a perfect sex trafficking backdrop. Martinez says unstable family conditions, especially substance abuse, play a huge factor in most of the cases she’s seen at BDS. But she stresses how easy it is for anyone of any background to be coerced by a charming, ill-intentioned predator. Social media and children obtaining cell phones at younger ages can provide new opportunities for sexual exploitation. Those factors close the gap between differences in demographics. “What I want people to know is that there is zero degree of separation, meaning at the end of the day there are some things that make us the same and bring us together.”
Martinez credits Oklahomans with the ability to help break down the stereotypes and get involved. On June 6, the Beautiful Dream Society will host its 5th Annual Run for the Dream Fun Run at Lake Hefner. Martinez says it’s a way for Oklahomans to come together to help raise awareness for the fight against human slavery and exploitation. “Oklahomans are the most caring people I’ve ever met,” she says. “People work very well together here.”
If you or anyone you know needs help please contact the Beautiful Dream Society hotline at 405-717-1221.
Written by Jessica Valentine