Founder of More Too Life Brook Bello channels her experience as a victim of trafficking into advocating for an end to this modern form of slavery.
Brook Bello, founder and CEO of the nonprofit More Too Life, will be arriving soon. Her staff prepares by playing a relaxing tune on her iPod and turning the TV to a TED talk about minimalism.
There’s plenty to look at in the meantime. The artwork hung in the More Too Life office looks like what you would find lining the walls of an elementary school hallway. The pieces are vibrant, many done on colorful construction paper, with child-like handwriting scribbled across them.
Upon further glance, however, it is easy to find dark clouds, broken hearts and messages such as “Mommy ... so sorry.” Some messages are more hopeful. On another wall reads the quote of the week: “As I change my thinking, I change my life.” To the left is a “future board” on a bright yellow piece of paper displaying a collage of a young human trafficking survivor’s dreams for her future: to adopt a cat; study in Europe; have a family of her own and much more.
Shortly after her arrival, Bello explains that survivor’s story.
“She was trafficked all through Orlando and different parts of Florida as part of an S&M ring,” Bello says. “It took me three months to get the dog collar off of her neck.”
What ensued exemplifies the unwavering devotion that Bello, a survivor of human trafficking herself, has for her organization and its mission. After several months of conversation and therapy, Bello was able to teach this young woman one of the most important lessons she tries to convey to all survivors: You cannot buy intimacy. Buying and selling someone does not equal love, she says, and what was done to this girl were not acts of love, they were “soul assassination.”
A Survivor's Story
Bello’s story starts at the age of 15, when she was kidnapped and forced into the world of human trafficking.
“So there I am, straight-A student, baseball player, hurdler, athlete,” she says. “I should have been in university playing baseball, playing volleyball or running hurdles, going towards my doctorate, but I was in a brothel, being raped and being sold.”
The details of her trafficking experience are too painful for Bello to recall, but what she remembers is losing all sense of herself. She was no longer the straight-A student or the talented athlete. She no longer had the desire to climb trees or surf or be the savvy, vivacious young woman who used to have a great zest for life.
When she finally broke free from human trafficking, Bello was suffering from addiction and was lost. She eventually got a job at the Hamburger Hamlet northwest of Los Angeles, and it was there that she met the first man who made her feel safe: actor Jon Voight.
“He wanted to show me that I was worth it,” Bello says.
Voight came in frequently for pancakes and asked for the young waitress because “there was just something special” about her. Bello was wary at first, but after she attended a dinner party at his house, the two began to forge a strong bond that helped jump-start both her acting career and her recovery.
What Voight didn’t know at the time was that shortly before meeting him, Bello had tried to kill herself — and was almost successful.
More Too Life is Cultivated
In 2000, as a survivor who found refuge in Christianity and thus became a leader at her church in Los Angeles, Bello started the advocacy work that would help her begin More Too Life. In 2006, the California native chose to move to Florida and base the organization in Sarasota, because she says there wasn’t enough being done here legislatively to combat human trafficking.
Her husband is a composer living in New York for work, but as an activist, Bello says she couldn’t go with him. She told him she needed to move to Florida because “that’s where the fight needs to be,” so they agreed he would fly back and forth.
Since its inception 11 years ago, More Too Life has focused on victim services and human trafficking prevention. Today, the nonprofit helps nearly 1,200 high-risk youth and teen victims and close to 100 adult victims a year. Services range from intensive case management — sometimes helping families involved in open Department of Children and Families cases to prevent the need for removal — to prevention programs for local students, such as The Game Changer.
This interactive curriculum took 12 years for Bello to create, and More Too Life is now licensed by the Sarasota County School District to utilize the curriculum in its sixth through 12th grade classrooms.
The main objective of The Game Changer school curriculum is to teach children about internet safety and to help them stay away from traffickers, especially because, as Bello points out, the majority of trafficking survivors were first sold as a child. Bello also points out that most kids are on the internet so often that they are bound to know something about trafficking, but her aim is to teach them how to avoid it.
“We have a safe way to give them the tools to avoid being hurt, and I think that’s important,” she says. “We just want to lovingly and intellectually assist them in identifying what they don’t understand so that they can be safe.”
More Too Life’s overall goal is “to transform victims to survivors, survivors to thrivers and thrivers to champions.”
Another major aspect of Bello’s work with More Too Life is to enact legislative change.
In 2015, Bello helped get House Bill 369 and House Bill 465 passed, which required the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health, and other particular employers to display human trafficking public awareness signs at specified locations; provided enhanced criminal penalties for soliciting another to commit prostitution — a key term that Bello added to the document —and similar offenses; and many other changes that further penalize anyone who sells another person into prostitution.
In 2016, Bello lobbied for and spoke before the senate committee to help pass Senate Bill 784 and House Bill 545, which revised the definition of “sexual abuse of a child” to remove a reference to a child being arrested or prosecuted for specified offenses, created an increased penalty for causing great bodily harm, added the term “hoteliers” as those who rent rooms for the purpose of exploitation to be charged with a crime, and many other changes.
More Too Life is always expanding, especially when it comes to cultivating new partnerships in the community. The latest partnership is with Ringling College of Art and Design, which, other than redesigning all of the organization’s logos and marketing materials, involves a collaboration with Semkhor Productions and actor Dylan McDermott to help create the web series “Sugar” about a young girl being trafficked.
More Too Life Case Manager Mary Burton thinks powerful partnerships like this are all thanks to Bello.
“Bello is a ball of energy,” Burton says. “She’s always 23 hours in when I’m on my first hour. It’s always about the work for her; it’s always about More Too Life — I’ve never seen anyone be so committed to a cause. It’s a passion.”
Yet her constant threat of exhaustion — Bello half jokes that she hasn’t slept since 2000 — doesn’t keep her from putting all her energy toward forging relationships with new philanthropic partners and with her mentees.
Burton says that Bello takes the latter so seriously that she often gives out her cell phone number to mentees. She tries to be as accessible as possible, and this becomes especially clear when watching Bello leave the More Too Life office at Glasser Schoenbaum Human Services Center.
The interview is over, and Bello makes her way to exit the office before offering the chance to briefly listen in on a group therapy session. The young women are gathered in a circle in an intimate room, some sitting, some standing, sharing their emotional experiences with the therapist and each other.
One young woman sees Bello out of the corner of her eye and immediately lights up. She greets her with a friendly bear hug, telling her “it’s been too long,” and letting her know how much she’s missed her. The survivor then pulls out a Valentine’s Day card. Bello reads part of the message aloud, which expresses the survivor’s deep gratitude for all that Bello has done for her throughout her recovery.
Bello asks her how the baby boy in the stroller a few feet away is doing. She assures Bello that her son is doing well, then they exchange another hug before saying their goodbyes.
It’s time to head back to the parking lot. As soon as the office door shuts, Bello explains the irony of the situation: the new mother she just hugged was sold into human trafficking by her own parents.
The hidden beauty of it, however, is that because she’s learned the true meaning of love from Bello, she gets a new start — a new family for which she will do everything she can to prevent the appalling actions that were taken upon her.
If you would like to report a possible human trafficking occurrence, victimization, law enforcement assistance, parent with missing child, incestual drama, rape, molestation, and/or abuse, call More Too Life: 941-227-1012. If your situation is a Human Trafficking alert, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.
*This story has been updated in order to fix an error that was accidentally published in the 3/9/17 print edition of the Observer. Brook Bello's internet safety program that is currently being used by Sarasota County schools to teach students how to stay away from human traffickers online was incorrectly identified. The correct program name is The Game Changer.