When a casual conversation over breakfast revealed a dire problem in Southwest Florida, Christ Church of Longboat Key members sprung into action.
Jerry Fox heads the church’s mission committee. He’s also been attending church services with Art Wood in their hometown of Lake Forest, Illinois, for 45 years. Both men own homes locally, too. Wood chaired the board for Selah Freedom in 2019.
Meeting for breakfast in July was nothing more than two old friends catching up, but it led to a $100,000 donation to Selah on Dec. 7 at their downtown Sarasota office. Christ Church matched a $50,000 donation made by The Patterson Foundation to cover startup costs for Selah Consulting.
“I never knew there was a Selah a year ago,” Fox said.
Selah is a Hebrew word meaning to pause, rest and reflect. Selah Freedom is a nonprofit organization that provides housing, counseling and life skills to survivors of sex trafficking to do just that. Now through Selah Consulting, they’ll be helping the helpers too.
“In addition to the consulting and mentoring services we do for other organizations, we also are building online courses for survivors,” co-founder Laurie Swink said. “A lot of times, we have organizations saying, 'What is it that you’re using? What do you do with survivors when you get them?' And so we are making those (resources) available to them.”
Swink says Selah has an 87% success rate of survivors finishing the program and not returning to the streets, and 100% of survivors in the residential program are working toward their individual education and career goals.
Just this year, 60 groups from across the U.S. and Canada have reached out to Selah for assistance. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Florida is third in the country, behind California and Texas, for the most trafficking cases.
The Osceola County Sheriff's Office has a map on its website that dots reported cases. The area from Tampa down to Sarasota is as heavily dotted in red as it is from West Palm Beach down to Miami.
“All of a sudden, you find there’s a major sex trafficking issue down in Sarasota and Bradenton. The area from Tampa down here is No. 1 in a bad way, being the worst areas for sex trafficking,” Fox said. “That really got our congregation very excited about this.”
On top of the $50,000 check, the congregation added more people to its already lengthy Christmas list. There are more than 25 girls and women in Selah’s residential program right now, and all will receive gifts thanks to church members.
The combined donation will send a ripple from our local community out to dozens more. Selah’s research found that there is a nationwide lack of resources for trafficking survivors. There are only 1,644 beds in residential programs dedicated to sex survivors, yet 10,836 victims were identified in 2020 alone.
The new consulting branch of Selah will provide a how-to on building a residential program, an in-person survivor-approved group curriculum, individual online courses for survivors with 24/7 access, and staff and volunteer training.
“We get to hit the ground running in 2023 when we thought we were still going to be raising money, but here we are six months later,” Swink said.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct number of girls and women currently in Selah’s residential program and to clarify the matched donations.
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.