The woman who walked to the microphone had shaking hands.
You could see the pages of her notes quivering as she tried to straighten them against the podium. She told the audience she was going to try not to cry.
“This journey has completely changed my life,” she said slowly. “I’m really nervous now but I know that I have support behind me and I’m grateful for that.”
The support the woman referred to was the staff members of Selah Freedom, a nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking overcome their trauma and restart their lives. Behind her were her peers, other graduates from the organization’s outreach and residential programs. In front of her was a tight-knit audience of family, friends and members of the Selah Freedom community who understood what she had gone through, and were celebrating the end of her journey with her.
As the graduation ceremony on Feb. 6 went on, four other graduates of two programs spoke about what they had overcome and how the organization helped them. The survivors’ photos were not taken and their names were not used.
Many of them had been addicted to drugs for years, and were finally clean. Some had criminal records from things they were forced to do by their traffickers, but now had a slate wiped clean. Some were reunited with families and children then hadn’t had contact with before.
They all had jobs, educations, places to live and support systems that weren’t in place before they came to Selah Freedom. And they were all grateful for the opportunity to restart their lives.
“It’s nice to be free today,” one woman said when she had her turn at the podium.
“Being in Selah has given me back the life I never thought I had,” said another.
"I paid taxes this year people!” one said triumphantly as the audience cheered.
The night was also a celebration of the community members who made these women’s transformations possible: the law enforcement officers and attorneys and judges who help identify and support these victims when they come in contact with them through court diversionary programs; the lawmakers who work to establish better tools to fight human trafficking; and the Selah Freedom staff that give their days, nights and lives to helping these women find who they are again.
By the end of her speech, the woman with the shaking hands was calm. She was smiling.
“It is because of all of you that I can hold my head high and be proud of the woman I have become,” she said. “Today I am a survivor.”