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Video: Wedgwood begins public phase of $10M campaign
Slavery exists in West Michigan.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that might be hard for some residents to imagine, since no one can remember ever having witnessed chain gangs of oppressed human beings marched down Grand Rapids streets.
But the fact that human trafficking has roots within this community is a very real and expensive fact for Wedgwood Christian Services, a more than 50-year-old local nonprofit that provides professional and spiritual assistance for troubled families and physically and emotionally traumatized individuals.
Last week, Wedgwood announced it has already raised $7.8 million toward its $10 million capital campaign, aimed at expanding Wedgwood’s services. Of that $10 million, $2 million is intended to be divided among facility upgrades, the Wedgwood Foundation expansion and campaign expenses, and $8 million is to be spread across three main projects.
Approximately $4.5 million will go toward developing Lighthouse Academy-North Campus, which opened last fall at 1260 Ekhart St. SE in Grand Rapids after ongoing requests from the Kent County Juvenile Court and local social service agencies. Lighthouse, which houses about 250 area youths in its 22,750-square-foot space, has a proven educational model for special needs, criminally adjudicated and expelled students, said Wedgwood officials, with grades 6-12 chartered by Ferris State University. Its education model has seen 95 percent of its graduates transition into either higher education, technical training or the military.
Approximately $2.5 million will go toward a 12,000-square-foot expansion of the Henry and Carolyn Bouma Counseling Center, located on Wedgwood’s main campus at 3300 36th St. SE. The addition is in response to a 300 percent increase in the number of families, teens and children serviced by the center’s community programs since its opening in 2010.
Approximately $1 million will go toward the Growing Hope for Children capital campaign, investing in the ongoing operations and expansion of the Manasseh Project’s 8,500-square-foot safe house for victims of sex-trafficking and other forms of sexual abuse. The safe house, one of about eight of its kind nationally and the only one in the state, currently houses 10 girls ages 14-17, all of whom are Michigan-raised, American citizens, and nine of whom were rescued from the local sex-trade, said Megan Ciha, training specialist at Manasseh.
It was the Manasseh home that drew the most attention from the audience at Wedgwood’s campaign announcement last week.
Andy Soper, Manasseh’s project coordinator, said housing a person in the safe house costs about $100,000 to $125,000 per year, which includes 24-hour care, medical and psychiatric care, education, transportation and community involvement, as well as a human resources department to hire staff for the home.
“There needs to be a variety of different services and options for this population. Right now, as we think about residential, there’s no one shelter doing it like the other,” he said. “The more we get a standard way of looking at this type of treatment, the more people will be able to latch onto it and do it effectively.”
The home has only been open for six months, but already it’s almost filled to capacity, Ciha said. The girls, some of whom are willing to speak to the police, have shared a variety of different reasons of how the sex trade system found a heartbeat in West Michigan, she said, but how they got involved in it usually boils down to the same answer.
“A lot of it has to do with not having stable homes and community to be with. (It’s similar to) how kids get involved with gangs — they’re feeling a need. That’s the only way they know how to fill it,” she said.
“Most of them were recruited by men (who) brought them into whatever town they were in and sold them. The (pimps) built up a trusting relationship with them, meeting the needs of whatever the girls had.”
Soper said the signs of the trade are visible in girls who aren’t spending a lot of time at school, who might carry 15 to 20 condoms at a time, who might have a very controlling older male influence, or who are involved in a gang.
“A girl in a gang is a product and nothing else. She doesn’t have the opportunities that the young men have in there, and so the way that they earn (their keep) is either by performing for the gang itself or being sold,” he said. “It’s just reality, and the more we accept that, the sooner we can engage that trauma.”
A realistic approach to the local issue is important, Soper said, because often the conversation around trafficking is so hyperbolic, it turns people off and is detrimental to the needs of the girls.
He doesn’t believe it’s a dramatically growing issue for West Michigan — the numbers have always been this high, he said — but it’s an issue social workers are beginning to see through a different lens based on how the sex trade is defined as a business.
The girls whom society once viewed as prostitutes who chose a “loose” profession are now being realized as victims in an illegal trade that targets minors, he said.
“It’s no longer the world’s oldest profession. It’s the world’s oldest oppression,” he said. “Women are forced, sometimes, physically into the situation, and rather than see them as a blight, we recognize the victimization — and that’s what I believe is changing culturally.”