Close your eyes and imagine that you are a 14 year old girl, kicked out of your home, have no where to go, on the streets, and are trying to survive. One day, someone finds you, is kind to you, offers you food, shelter, nice things, and makes you feel wanted and safe. You think you are in a good place and this person really cares for you. Then, everything changes. All of the sudden, they tell you that you “owe them” and you have to repay them for everything they have done for you. They force you to do things that no little girl should ever be forced to do, and now, you are trapped, and it seems like there is no way out. You have become a slave in an evil business which leads to nowhere but destruction. This is the case for hundreds of girls in Minnesota. They are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking and their numbers continue to grow.
The trauma that these girls experience is unimaginable. Their stories are heartbreaking, but, there is also a strength within them that is breathtaking. They have a will to survive and a right to be heard and recognized for what they are - just beautiful little girls, in need of love, compassion, and an opportunity to grow in their potential and talents. Images of Strength and Hope is a program which I have started to serve girls like these who are facing some of life’s greatest struggles. I work to build trust, I encourage them to see the true beauty within themselves, and teach them the importance of expressing themselves creatively through photography and writing, They all receive a written account of their journey, photographs which have meaning to them, and a published book preserving it all.
Images of Hope and Strength is implemented through partnerships with community organizations such as 180Degrees which provides residential programs for homeless and high-risk youth, trafficked girls, and adult men. This organization serves over 1,200 youth each year through programs which support individuals and families in overcoming barriers to transform their lives. Partnering with 180 Degree’s program Brittany’s Place, I have the privilege of serving girls who are victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. This has been a truly humbling and rewarding experience for me.
The goal of Images of Strength and Hope in working with Brittany’s Place is to empower girls to recognize the unique beauty within themselves, honor the beauty they see in others, and to recognize their strength. We do this in a weekly program offering tools for artistic expression through photography and writing. The purpose is to build positive and trusting relationships, and encourage positive self-image by capturing their unique stories through photography. Photography has the power to show the unique characteristics and beauty of a person, their interests, their inner beauty, and passions. The goal is to empower these girls to see their value as incredible individuals who have strengths, valuable interests, and are needed in this world just by being who they are. We want them to recognize that their stories - whether depicted through writing or in photographs is valuable and a source of hope. Whether shared with others or kept as a private chronicle of their journey, their stories help them feel less isolated and united with one another in the commonality of their struggles and the strength in what they have overcome. All of this results in hope.
Although I cannot share with you the amazing images that I have been blessed to take of these girls or the amazing photos that they have created in our photography classes together, I can share with you the power that they hold. I can share with you the impressions that I receive about them and the incredible beauty and strength I am able to see in my weekly meetings with them. So many of us tend to think, these things never take place in places in Minnesota - maybe in big cities, but not here. But it is happening here and at an accelerating rate that is mind blowing. When it comes down to it, what you need to realize is that these are our children. They are girls ranging from 11-18 years old. They are our neighbors, our kids’ friends, the girls we see at the mall with their friends, at a movie, or playing on the playground. They are simply little girls - in need of love, direction, encouragement, and the chance to see how valuable they are. During the coming months, I will highlight stories that evolve from Images of Strength and Hope with the intention that you will receive hope from them, too. For more information on Brittany’s Place or in order to support this program you may donate using the button below or Contact Ann Marie.