With Love Never Fails, Vanessa Russell reaches out to sex trafficking survivors

Vanessa Russell started the organization Love Never Fails to help victims of human trafficking in the Bay Area.

A blue tarp covered the floor of the San Francisco dance studio that converted every Sunday to a place of worship. Mirrors lined the walls and dozens of folding chairs created neat rows. Vanessa Russell stood in the front row, singing devotional songs along with the congregation of about 50 people. They swayed with their arms raised and their eyes closed. Russell’s gaze was lifted towards the sky, her stylish short-cropped hair framing her face. Her sea-green tunic flowed as her outstretched arms made graceful movements, and her bare feet stepped in time to the music. She wiped back tears as she sang the words “He is awakening this hope in me, by calling forth my destiny.”

After the scripture was delivered, Russell performed an interpretive dance for the congregation. She danced alone. The other dance troupe members had last-minute obligations that morning, but it didn’t seem to matter to anyone, least of all Russell. As the applause died down, a fashionable pastor in black skinny jeans and loafers addressed the congregation. He introduced Russell, their guest, as the founder and executive director of Love Never Fails, a faith-based organization that fights human trafficking in the Bay Area.

The pastor moved a table over to use as a pulpit. “Here you go,” he said to Russell. “You can beat it, pound it, anything you want.”

“Can I dance on it?” she asked. Everyone laughed.

“Well, good morning everyone!” Russell began. “You’ve got a gift coming. The Lord literally said to me this morning, ‘You’re changing your message.’ And I got up at 6 and I began to write down the new message that the Lord gave for you. And it’s a message of hope.”

She spoke about her humble beginnings, how she survived poverty and child abuse.

“I’ve gone on to do some amazing things by the grace of God, and only by the grace of God,” said Russell. “I graduated from the School of the Arts. I went on to graduate from University of San Francisco. I’m now an executive at Cisco Systems. I run Love Never Fails. I’m a senior pastor’s wife, and we have seven kids.”

She talked about her experiences helping trafficking survivors and what they go through emotionally after exiting “the life,” as people who have been sold for sex refer to the business.

“When you are productized, it does something to you. It’s much different than just being beaten and just being raped. You’re now comparing yourself to the woman next to you. You’re sizing yourself up. You’re thinking about how much money she can get versus you. You’re thinking about how much more attention you can get from your exploiter than she can,” said Russell. “Everything is a category. Everything is evaluating yourself based on how you look, based on how skilled you are in a variety of ways that we won’t talk about here, since we’re in church.”

Russell gave them some statistics gleaned from the U.S. Department of Justice: the average trafficked person in the United States is between 12 and 14 years old. In Oakland, according to local organizations fighting trafficking, the average age is 11. She told them that 84 percent of victims in this country are U.S. citizens.

“These are not people that live somewhere over there,” said Russell. “This is happening to us right here.”

She flipped through news clippings in a PowerPoint presentation, driving home the point that sex trafficking is happening in the Bay Area, in all kinds of neighborhoods.

She talked about the initiatives run by Love Never Fails: a safe house, a mentoring program, and education programs to teach young people to recognize the signs of human trafficking and the methods of traffickers. “We’ve provided safe housing for 84 women and 14 children in two and a half years,” said Russell. “This is an 18-month program. We’ve had women that 18 months ago, they were sold on the street. Now they are real estate agents. Eighteen months ago, they were sold on the street. Now they are data analysts working in San Francisco and living on their own.”

And she shared stories of despair. “Right now, I have a 14-year-old that’s missing from Pacifica. We’re looking for her all over,” said Russell. The young girl’s cousin happened to be sitting in the audience. She stirred and gripped the hand of the person sitting next to her.

Russell ended her hour-long talk with prayer. “I don’t understand these things. I don’t get it,” she prayed, “but my hope is in you, God. My hope is you, God. I can’t solve human trafficking. I can’t solve homelessness. I can’t solve broken families. I can’t solve addiction.”

“There is no hope in man, but my hope is in you, God,” she said.

As Russell finished speaking, a woman in blue raised her hand.

“Who do I write the check out to?” she asked.

***

According to the State of California Department of Justice, human trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise, at $32 billion a year globally. Based on testimonials of the survivors she works with, Russell conservatively estimates that each exploited person is sold 3,000 times a year, and often up to 20 times a day. She says they are generally required to bring in approximately $1,000 a day to their exploiter, who usually has four people under his or her control.

The Department of Justice equates human trafficking with modern-day slavery, and defines it as “a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts.” Alameda County’s Human Exploitation and Trafficking Watch (H.E.A.T.), reports that the Bay Area is one of three areas in the United States that experiences the highest rates of human trafficking. H.E.A.T. also reports that Oakland is a thriving underage sex market, and is the epicenter of a trafficking triangle between San Francisco and Contra Costa counties. Over the past decade, National Human Trafficking Hotline, run by the nonprofit Polaris, has reported steadily increasing cases of youth sex trafficking in California: from 352 cases in 2012 to 1,052 cases in 2016.

Human Trafficking
Infogram

Russell didn’t always know so much about human trafficking in the Bay Area. Actually, there was a time not too long ago when she didn’t know it was happening at all.

For years, Russell had been teaching dance classes on Friday nights at Faith Fellowship, her church in San Leandro. Then a 14-year-old student of hers named Cari stopped coming to class. Russell remembers Cari as a “brilliant, kinda nerdy girl” who was “very quiet.” The girl’s relatives said she was going through a “wild phase,” Russell remembers. But in truth, Cari had become a victim of sex trafficking.

As Cari, who is now 21 and no longer ensnared in the sex trade, would later tell Russell, she and her brother had been born in Berkeley to a drug-addicted mother and an absentee father. They were raised by a series of relatives and foster parents. When Cari was 10, her mother was murdered. As teenagers, she and her brother became increasingly difficult to handle; Cari often ran away. They were eventually passed on to an aunt in Oakland.

Cari began attending a summer program in Hayward, as well as dance classes at Russell’s church. Then one day while walking through a park, she met a man with pretty hazel-green eyes, white teeth and a big smile. He said he was 17, although he was probably more like 27. They spent the day together. Then a night. Then a week. By the end of the week, she found herself in a hotel room with “a whole bunch of other grown-ass people,” said Cari, who agreed to an interview. (To protect her identity, her last name is being withheld.) “They were doing drugs. Partying all day, every day. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t a good situation,” she said.

“A week went by and he told me that I can call whoever I wanted to call, and if they come get me, then they come get me. But if they don’t, then, oh well,” said Cari. “My aunt was not coming. I called her, told her the situation. She just didn’t come get me.”

Later that day, the man with the hazel-green eyes and the big smile turned her out—sold her for sex. She was 14.

Cari spent the next year being trafficked throughout California, but mostly between Hayward and Oakland. “Oakland is such a big place for trafficking. It was easy to be in Oakland. There were so many girls who were my age and so many people that didn’t care,” said Cari. She had many different pimps. She was in and out of the Assessment Center, where the Alameda County Social Services Agency places children while they are trying to find more permanent housing for them. She was placed in multiple foster homes from which she would “just run” and start the vicious cycle again.

Then Cari had a particularly bad night with her trafficker. They were “getting into it about something, and I decided to leave, period. To leave the life,” she recalled. “I took off my shoes. My feet were hurting. They were purple. They were purple heels and I threw them in the garbage. I was walking down International with bare-ass feet. I met a guy who worked in an auto shop and he offered to drive me somewhere.”

The memories came back to Cari slowly as she spoke. “I asked him to take me to church. I didn’t know where else to go,” she said eventually.

At Faith Fellowship, two other women came across Cari first. They took her to get new clothes. Then they took her to Russell, who was at the church teaching Celebrate Recovery, a faith-based 12-step addiction recovery program. “The woman who runs the program came up to me and said, ‘Hey I’ve got this teenager. I don’t know what her deal is, but I just felt really strongly that you need to talk to her,’” said Russell. “And another woman came and brought her over to me. It was my student, Cari.”

The two went across the street and sat in a café. “We talked about, not really being in the life, but we talked about what was going on internally,” recalled Cari, “and whether or not I was safe. If I thought I was safe. And about how much I was loved and about how she worries about me. That’s what I remember.”

But Russell’s recollection of the conversation differs greatly. She recalled Cari telling her about all of the violence she’d been exposed to during the time she was being sold on the streets. “And she said it all so calmly, like she was talking about drinking water or taking a bath. And I was just shocked. I had chills all over my body. I was shaking. I was so mad. I had every emotion you can think of,” said Russell.

“The things she told me were just horrific, and the only thing that bothered her was that her feet hurt. That was the only thing where I actually saw that she still had feelings, that she was still in tune with her body. And I knew that something was wrong,” Russell continued. “I knew that something was very wrong with her, psychologically, emotionally, because everything she was saying to me was like it was like nothing. Nothing.”

When Cari left the café, she got a ride back to a family member’s house. Russell thought everything was going to be all right.

But it wasn’t. Cari returned to her exploiter. “It went on for over a year. She was trauma-bonded to the person who was doing this to her. There were lies being used to keep her ensnared,” said Russell.

Russell began searching for Cari. For eight months, she drove the entirety of International Boulevard, from Lake Merritt to San Leandro, several times a week hoping to spot her. Russell started talking to police officers in Oakland and Hayward, attorneys in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, and advocates at Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth (MISSSEY) and Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR). As she learned more about the underworld of child sex trafficking, she realized she had to get Cari into a program that would help her.

Despite Russell’s efforts, Cari was stuck in a cycle: traffickers, assessment center, foster home, repeat. According to Cari, she was officially logged into the assessment center 23 times. As much as Russell wanted to help, Cari needed to be willing to get help.

There was a window when Cari was back in touch with Russell and seemed open to entering a rehabilitation program. The only residential program they could find cost $36,000. Russell’s congregation at Faith Fellowship raised the money, but by the time they did, Cari was no longer willing to enter the program. She had been swept back into the cycle.

“We raised almost $30,000 that day in 30 minutes. It was like, boom! Everyone just took out their checkbooks and just started giving,” said Russell. “And I was like ‘OK, people are really serious about this, like I am.’ And that gave me a lot of encouragement.”

Russell was struggling to imagine that selling another person for sex, let alone a child, was something that people did. And it was happening in her backyard. During her searches for Cari, Russell realized, “This is not just happening to my student. It was an awareness that when I went up and down the street, there were all these kids out there. My heart was just broken. I felt like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is not an anomaly. This isn’t just my student. This is very common.’”

Russell felt she had to act. She told her pastor she wanted to start a non-profit to help fill what she saw as a gap in services available to victims of trafficking. He offered his support, but the idea of starting her own organization overwhelmed Russell. “So, I prayed about it for a couple weeks. I kept feeling defeated during that time. I was like, ‘I have two kids. I have a full-time job. I don’t even know how to do something like this, like a non-profit. I don’t have time for this,’” she recalled.

Over time, she felt her prayers were answered. She thought God was telling her, “All you need to do is love them. Just love them, and that’s it. I’m not asking you to do anything else. Just love them.”

“That’s where the name Love Never Fails came from,” she said. “I began to advocate for the people that I came across as if they were my own children.”

Russell officially started Love Never Fails in December, 2011. She had been actively trying to locate Cari for almost a year by then. She simply stood up in front of her congregation and announced she would be starting a non-profit. “Love Never Fails came out of that position of just being in complete surrender. I knew I had to do something, but I was not equipped to do anything,” said Russell. “I just got up in front of my church and 75 people got up and said that they would join me. We had this meeting and there were all these tables full of people saying, ‘Tell us what to do!’ And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know what we’re going do, but we’re going to do something!’”

Russell’s efforts eventually led to Cari’s arrest: She had found the online advertisement that Cari’s exploiter had posted and forwarded it to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, who in turn contacted the Oakland Police Department. In September, 2011, Cari was arrested by an undercover cop who posed as a buyer. Cari said she was charged with disturbing the peace.

She spent three months at Juvenile Hall, then nine more at a residential treatment facility in Arizona where she caught up with credits for high school. When she returned from Arizona, Cari took part in Love Never Fails mentorship and job training programs. She volunteered as well, connecting with girls who were just getting off the streets and making care packages for teens who were being sent away to programs like the one in Arizona. “We were doing activities that kept me busy. It took up time out of my day to where I didn’t have time. I couldn’t get restless. I think that’s how Love Never Fails helped me the most,” said Cari.

Just before her 18th birthday, Cari was adopted—though official paperwork was never filed—by a Love Never Fails volunteer named Erica Thompson. Cari moved in with Thompson, who she still calls her mom, and said she finally felt like she had a home and a family. Cari went on to graduate from high school with honors and get a certificate in culinary arts to work in the food-service industry. Over the years, she has become an advisor to Russell about the needs of survivors of human trafficking.

When asked what would have happened if Russell had not looked for her, Cari takes a long, deep breath. “I don’t know if I would have ever left the life,” she said.

***

Russell sat on a leather couch in her quaint, tidy, colorful home near Tracy watching TV with Freedom, her Maltese-Poodle. She was waiting for her Love Never Fails public service announcement to come on.

In early November, Russell was recognized by Investigation Discovery and People magazine as the winner of the national “Inspire a Difference Everyday Hero Award.” The award is given to a person who is providing resources and education to victims of crime and social injustice in their community. Part of the honor that comes with this award was the airing of a Love Never Fails public service announcement on national television.

Russell had just returned from a weekend of award fanfare in New York City, where she gave a speech about the importance of advocating for young people enslaved in human trafficking and what a huge problem it is in the United States. She talked about the work her organization does to combat the issue in the Bay Area and how she is committed to “out-loving the pain these survivors have endured.”

Afterward, she said, she was touched when a man at the awards dinner told her: “I just loved what you said. It’s here in my heart.”

“I just want people to care, you know?” said Russell.

As she retold the story, Freedom ran around the house, nipping at heels. Her son, David, age 10, also ran around, pressing a button that loudly yelled “No!” He pressed it incessantly. Russell watched patiently, loving and amused. She made him a Cup of Noodles, then he retreated to his bedroom where he relaxed with his video game console. “I am a very lucky boy,” said David, “and I know it.”

Russell had spent the day with her children, her grandchild, and her husband, Timothy, a lead pastor at New Hope, an evangelical Pentecostal church in Hayward that is part of the Foursquare denomination. When they married two years ago, Russell went from having two children—22-year-old Eliziah and 9-year-old Natasha—to seven, though only three live at home with her. The rest are grown and live nearby with their families. Several of them spent the morning at church, listening to Pastor Tim preach, and then went out to lunch at a nearby steakhouse.

Growing up, Russell had her own battles with abuse and neglect. She was born in Pennsylvania to a young interracial couple. Her parents’ relationship ended when she was a toddler. Russell said that her father abused her mother, who fled to live with family in Florida. Russell’s mother was abused by a family member in Florida, so her mother put her in foster care while she travelled west to find a new home for them. Her mother settled on San Francisco, then came back to pick her up. The two got on a plane with one suitcase and a “desperate prayer,” Russell recalled.  They lived on couches at first, and eventually ended up in a flat in the Mission District.

But the abuse continued for Russell. A babysitter’s husband molested her, she said, and at age 12, she was raped by her boyfriend. “Growing up, I had so much shame about my background. It’s like, ‘I’ll never amount to anything. I’ll never accomplish what that person did or what these people did because I come from nothing.’ Now I see that that’s a strength. You know? It’s not the lowly thing that I thought it was. It’s actually quite a powerful thing to be able to overcome those kinds of circumstances,” said Russell.

After graduating from the University of San Francisco in 2000 with a degree in information systems, Russell worked as an information technology manager for Alameda County. In 2006, she was hired at Cisco, where she is now a business development manager.

For its first four years, Love Never Fails was run by volunteers out of Russell’s home and a P.O. box. Their first initiatives were street outreach and a search and rescue program they called Project Look for Me. For the first two years, Russell led the searches by herself, using what she had learned looking for Cari to help others locate missing children. The program has evolved and is now made up of volunteers with backgrounds in the military, law enforcement and private investigation.

Russell considers street outreach the heart of the organization. A survivor who now volunteers with Love Never Fails once told Russell that in the 10 years she was being exploited on the streets, “Not one person ever came to see about her. Not one person ever asked her, ‘What is your name?’ No one asked, ‘Do you want to be out here? Are you hungry? Can I help you?’” said Russell. “And that broke my heart.”

Every month, a group of 20 to 40 volunteers walk International Boulevard and other neighborhoods in the Bay Area offering prayer to anyone they encounter. They hand out pink tie-dyed “You Are Loved” bracelets. Inside the band, out of sight, is a phone number, in case a young woman decides one day that they want out of the life. They can call it and to be connected to services at Love Never Fails.

In the beginning, the search teams would take flyers that had pictures of the missing people they were looking for, but they never found anybody that way. Today, Russell says their focus is simply to let women and men on the streets know that “they are loved and valued.” The teams will call in any minor they suspect is being exploited to local police, recording their location and as many identifying factors as they can. If they meet anyone who wants to get off the streets, they will work behind the scenes to get them to a safe place.  

As the group began to grow, they started developing their programs based on the suggestions of survivors like Cari. Russell asked Cari what might have prevented her from going home with the man with the hazel-green eyes and continuing to return to her traffickers. Russell recalled her saying, “Well, if I had just had a confidante. If someone had just noticed me in the crowd and said, ‘You are important to me. I see you.’”

“So, we birthed the mentoring program,” said Russell.

The Mentors 4 Positive change program now has over 80 mentors and has been run since the beginning by Misty Felton, who also works as a rape crisis counselor. Mentors are required to attend 18 hours of training with Love Never Fails staff. Once they are paired with a survivor or at-risk youth, they check in with their mentee on a weekly basis. Love Never Fails has also mentored men who were exploiters or were at risk of heading down that path, showing them love and compassion often helped them turn their lives around. Russell said that it is easy to “villainize those people” but that “these men often become exploiters for the same reasons young women become exploited —they were abused as children and grew up in unstable environments.”

The organization hired its first employee two years ago, and now has a staff of 15 paid people. Their work now includes running two safe houses, educational programs for middle and high school students, and offering legal services to survivors thanks to the pro bono efforts of attorney Rose Mukhar, who has since founded her own organization, Justice at Last.

Two years ago, they opened an office and a clothing re-sale store in Hayward that employs survivors. They have satellite offices in Sacramento, San Jose and San Francisco. In January, they will be opening a Cisco Networking Academy, where participants will be trained in information technology services and be able to apply for jobs as network engineers.

Love Never Fails also developed a trafficking prevention curriculum for Bay Area schools in conjunctions with two other non-profits—Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and 3 Strands Global. Thanks to the passage of Assembly Bill 1227, which requires human trafficking prevention education for 7th, 9th and 11th graders, Russell’s group collaborated with state offices as part of a new project called PROTECT. The acronym stands for Prevention Organized to Educate Children on Trafficking, and was designed in partnership with the California Department of Education and the California Office of the Attorney General. It will be rolling out anti-trafficking lessons throughout the state offering age-appropriate content for middle and high schoolers. The younger grades will learn about what Russell calls “safe people, safe places, and safe choices,” while the high schoolers will learn about sexual abuse and human trafficking. The education plan for 11th graders will also look at trafficking through the lens of slavery in their history classes.

Currently, approximately 40 percent of Love Never Fails’ funding comes from government grants, 35 percent from church organizations, 20 percent from individual donations, and 5 percent from corporate donations.

“Things have definitely been growing,” said Emily Hinsey, who has worked with them for almost two years and is now the chief of staff. “When I started, I was alone in the office and the community store was only open on Saturday.”

Russell also brought Pastor Tim into the organization after they were married in 2015. Her husband recalls a time early in their relationship when he joined her and other Love Never Fails volunteers for street outreach in Oakland. “I didn’t know there were 12-year-olds on the corner. I didn’t know there were 11-year-olds being exploited, until I met Vanessa,” he said. “I grew up in East Palo Alto that at one time was the murder capital of the U.S. I’ve seen gun violence. I’ve seen it all. But I hadn’t seen that. My eyes were wide open that night.”

He said with a hearty chuckle that he had a hard time keeping up with her. “I’ve never seen anybody walk that fast in my life,” he said. “I mean, I played college football, and she could probably walk the forty in .4 seconds.”

He knows that working to combat human trafficking takes an emotional toll on his wife. “Not everybody can climb a mountain. Some people are just going to stand at the bottom and scream. She has her moments, she’ll scream, but then she finds a way to climb that mountain,” he said. “And I see her every day climbing mountains, climbing mountains, climbing mountains. She’s tireless in her efforts. She has perseverance. She’s caring to a fault and she wants to see the good in everybody.”

Today, the pastor is on the advisory board for Love Never Fails and is program director for Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, which runs classes about marketing, financial strategies, and business planning that the women in Russell’s programs can attend. “We partner with Love Never Fails. We help individuals transform their lives through entrepreneurship and empower them through financial education,” he said.

One of Russell’s other volunteers is Rachel Carrasco, her best friend of the past four decades, who has taught weekly exercise and nutrition classes at the Alameda County safe house. She is the person who introduced Russell to Faith Fellowship and then to Pastor Tim. “Vanessa has always been go, go, go, and always had goals and dreams, and she always obtains them because she doesn’t let anything stop her,” said Carrasco. “But I think it wasn’t until she found God that she came full circle.”

Carrasco says Russell has grown into her current role. “She’s always been a good person, but I think the selflessness came when she found the Lord, because she just gave it all,” said Carrasco. “She gave God everything and let him be over everything in her life.”

Russell feels that both her work with Love Never Fails and her relationship with God have “grown her up.” “This work has changed me in so many ways, so many ways,” she said. “Through the experience of telling a million people that they are worth so much, and they are valued, I became aware that I had to work on my own worth.”

“I have done lot of work to be healed in that arena,” she said. “And God has performed miracles on me.”

***

Russell was on her way, stuck in rainy day traffic. Her show “Abolition Radio” was about to start recording at the KFAX studio in Fairfax.

Sitting in the studio, Benita Hopkins, director of community engagement for Love Never Fails, was about to lead the show. She was nervous. The production manager calmed her. “You always do great,” he said.

The Christian talk show, which features on-air guests from organizations around the country that deal with human trafficking issues, airs weekly on Saturdays and draws an estimated 500 listeners.

On this day, Hopkins was talking to Sarah Durfey, a founding board member of the Boston based organization Amirah, a long term recovery program for women coming out of sex trafficking, and Raleigh Sadler, the founder and executive director of New York based organization Let My People Go, a faith-based organization that fights human trafficking.

Russell came in part-way through the show and slipped in seamlessly, and they continued their conversation about a conference they had all just attended in Detroit where they led a workshop on human trafficking and the role of the church.

After that show wrapped, Russell hosted another with her husband, called Equally Yoked, about marriage and relationships. Their pre-recorded tagline came over the speakers, “God has a wonderful plan for your marriage. And this program is dedicated to helping you understand his plan. Now here are your hosts: Pastor Tim and Vanessa Russell.”

Pastor Tim opened up by greeting his “beautiful wife” and asking her how she was doing today. With both of their busy schedules, it seemed to be a way for the couple to catch up.  

After a few hours in the studio, Russell headed to Love Never Fails headquarters in Hayward. She was running a clothing drive to start a “career closet” where victims of trafficking could get free professional outfits for job interviews. About a dozen volunteers from Cisco listened to Russell give a presentation about trafficking, and then went through bags of donated clothes, hanging them in the once-empty closet.

Around the corner from the career closet is the re-sale shop where Love Never Fails employs survivors who need a job. It looks similar to a Goodwill, but more neatly organized, with racks of clothing and trinkets filling the space. A young woman who went through the safe house program was working the register. She and Russell chatted about her most recent success: job offers from three banks and her preparation to get her driver’s license. Before Russell left, she bought an aqua dress for her daughter’s singing recital the coming weekend.

Back in the office, Russell retreated down the hall and prepared a microwave meal. Her schedule doesn’t leave her much time to cook, or to eat. Her neighbor makes her small meals, which she buys for $8 a pop, and she takes them on the road, mostly eating in her car.

Hinsey, her chief of staff, reminded her she missed a call that was scheduled 30 minutes earlier. “Emily is the glue that holds this place together,” Russell said.

Hinsey says that running a non-profit with so many moving parts is hard but rewarding work. “I don’t even know how Vanessa does all of the things that she does. I struggle immensely just to keep up with all her initiatives,” she said. “It’s challenging, I think, for all of our staff, because it’s extremely hard work. It’s very stressful. It’s very overwhelming. And because Love Never Fails does so much with a small staff, we’re all spread pretty thin and take on a lot.”

“But I can’t really imagine doing anything else,” she continued. “It’s hard work combating human trafficking. But there’s an amazing group of people who are committed to it and we’ve been able to see just so many people’s lives restored and changed.”

***

A bus driving Love Never Fails street outreach volunteers parked at the Goodwill on International Boulevard in Oakland just before midnight on a Saturday. The volunteers had already spent a couple of hours walking West Oakland offering food and prayer to people at homeless encampments. Tonight, like many other nights, their goal was simply to let the women and men on the streets know that there are people out there who care about them.

The group carried boxes of pizza, bottled water, toiletries and warm clothing and greeted everyone they passed. Russell was dressed in a black sweatsuit, tennis sneakers and a light blue scarf, her dark curly hair bouncing in step with her lively gait. Several pink tie-dyed “You Are Loved” bracelets lined her wrist.

Just past the Jack in the Box, they ran into a woman who went by the name of Honey. She wore thigh-high white boots, with a peek-a-boo toe. A short grey dress hugged her curves. A light black jacket covered her—a luxury on this chilly night in late November. Most of the other girls had bare shoulders, bare everything.

Russell stopped and offered Honey a bracelet.

Honey declined; the same bracelet already adorned her wrist. She had been wearing it for months. Honey and Russell exchanged smiles, and talked for a minute. The woman’s pimp was nearby, Russell conveyed, so her every move was being watched.

The group moved on, passing out bracelets and pizza, looking for any girl in need of a caring smile. Perhaps one who was ready to leave the life would take their number and maybe, one day, call.

2 Comments

  1. Carolynne Mims

    Vanessa has always been a genuine spirit. I have known her since I was in the 6th grade – my sister and her were close friends growing up. I always looked up to them – they carried themselves with so much grace. I pray for Love Never Fails, The Russells and all the volunteers and staff. May God continue to give you strength and wisdom to fight and conquer for those in need. God Bless you all.

  2. Kate Nagasawa

    Wonderful article, Lisa Hornak. Thank you for writing.

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