CHESTER, Va. (WWBT)- A local nonprofit is on a mission to raise awareness about human trafficking and funding for a new two-year residential recovery program in central Virginia.
Kristin Vaughn knows first-hand about human trafficking because she was once trapped inside of it.
“It was the very darkest, worst point of my life,” said Vaughn, who now advocates for changes in policy and legislation on all levels of government. ”For someone else to have agency over you being able to walk outside, for the sun to hit your face, for them to be in charge of when you take a shower, it’s the most humiliating.”
Vaughn moved to Roanoke in the early 2000s for what was supposed to be a fresh start after being sexually assaulted just months into her first year in college. The assault led to pregnancy, which she terminated along with dreams of finishing college and going to law school.
“I stopped going to class, I stopped taking a shower, I stopped getting out of bed,” said Kristin about her battle with depression just months before her new beginning.
Vaughn was training to become a chef at a luxury hotel in Roanoke when she befriended a group of women she often ran into at the bus stop.
Unbeknownst to her then, the group was paid to lure and “groom” her for human trafficking.
“We’d go into a store, I would get stuff, and they would pay for everything,” Vaughn said. “That’s the very bottom of where it started.”
She said they would brainwash her with comments like “We’re your family, we love you, you’re my sister.”
Vaughn would be trafficked up and down I-81 in Virginia, primarily Roanoke, for the next two years. The home she was once held captive in is now gone.
She described the homeowner as a man with a regular day-to-day job and would never be suspected of having anything to do with human trafficking.
Vaughn regained her freedom after a client, who knew her father, told her family where she was, and they came to her rescue.
“My dad, brother and cousin came to the house with baseball bats and were like, ‘We need Kristin, ‘” Vaughn said. ” The traffickers were so concerned about my family bringing so much heat onto that house that they were like, ‘You gotta go.’”
Vaughn left Virginia to recover from the trauma at a two-year residential recovery program in Tennessee because she could not find the needed services at home.
“I went into a situation where there was housing, I didn’t have to worry about rent, and there was someone available 24/7 to help us work through anything,” said Vaughn, who could focus on healing without the risk of homelessness.
The “housing-first model” is the same type of service Linda Hawkins wants to bring to Central Virginia.
Hawkins is the founder and CEO of Recover Hope. This nonprofit aims to educate the public on human trafficking and raise money for a two-year residential recovery program. The cost to establish the facility by next spring would be $250,000.
The organization is hosting a fundraising gala on Oct. 28 at Virginia State University Gateway Venue from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“Number one is physical healing and emotional healing,” said Hawkins, who knows victims who have been sold as many as 20 times in one day. “They’ve been through a lot.”
“We want to provide the counseling. We want to provide the things that they need,” said Hawkins. “I’m a nurse, and you don’t put a band-aid on an artery.”
According to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), five residential treatment and transitional housing locations exist in the Commonwealth.
Right now, Safe Harbor is the only one in central Virginia and would differ in duration from the facility Hawkins wants to add.
Human trafficking involves force, fraud or coercion in exchange for labor or a commercial sex act.
In Virginia, major highways like I-95, I-64 and I-81 have made it easy for traffickers to move victims.
“Human trafficking is vulnerability. Traffickers know how to sense vulnerability,” Hawkins said. “It can be a doctor, it can be a lawyer, it can be a pastor, it’s not exclusive to one subset of people.”
According to the latest statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, nearly 140 cases were reported in Virginia in 2021. Those cases included about 200 victims.
However, the numbers don’t paint the full picture. Often, cases are underreported, and there is no working centralized system to keep up with them.
Law enforcement agencies are not required to report cases to the state. A data collection system known as The Virginia Analytics System for Trafficking (VAST) needs $350,000 annually to keep running, according to a DCJS 2022 annual report. It is not clear if money will be allocated from the state budget.
Moreover, Virginia State Police is still in the process of developing a human trafficking unit.
Vaughn, who works with The Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking and other organizations, will not stop fighting for changes she would like to see, and she encourages other survivors to help.
“With the privilege of getting out that I was given, the gift comes with a responsibility,” Vaughn said. “That responsibility is to do everything I can to make sure that [human trafficking] doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
The early bird deadline for Recover Hope’s fundraising gala is Aug. 30. Single tickets are $60, and couples pay $110.
The price increases to $75 for singles and $125 for couples on Aug. 31.
There will be a silent auction on Oct. 20.
If you would like to purchase tickets or donate in support, visit recoverhope.org
If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.