In Boston, Exploited Youth Connect with Survivor-Mentors to Build Trust, Community
Like most professionals working with at-risk young people, Ann Wilkinson has a hectic schedule. But no matter how busy her day gets, Wilkinson will drop everything to take a call from 21-year-old Gloria*, her mentee of nearly a decade.
Wilkinson and Gloria first met through My Life My Choice, a Boston-based agency working to prevent the commercial sexual exploitation of teens. The agency’s mentoring program connects exploited and at-risk youth to adult trafficking survivors like Wilkinson to help participants bond over their shared experiences and begin to build trust.
“No one else [besides other survivors] can do this type of mentoring,” says Wilkinson, now the agency’s director of mentoring services. “Survivors have credibility with youth”.
Making the Match
Survivors’ lived experiences are so important to My Life My Choice that potential mentors have two main requirements: they must be female survivors of sexual exploitation and willing to talk about their past experiences.
Mentors who meet those criteria are matched with young women referred to the program through community organizations. Mentors and mentees meet at least once per week at the beginning of the program, Wilkinson says, to give survivors time to tell their stories and to share how life has changed since leaving their exploiters. Some mentors also discuss their experiences with social service providers to help young people decide if they’re ready to seek out resources.
Each mentoring arrangement lasts as long as the youth wants it to continue, Wilkinson says, but has the flexibility to adapt to youths’ changing needs. A young woman going back to school or work may need to meet every two weeks, for example, or to begin catching up by phone instead of in-person. This non cookie-cutter approach gives young survivors a chance to test the waters of their new life, she stresses, while knowing they have a constant source of support.
“We [as mentors] are there in the peak; we are there in the valley,” Wilkinson says of the ongoing relationship. “We are the mainstay.”
Building a Community
Young women enrolled in My Life My Choice’s mentoring program also connect with a larger community of survivors to understand they are a "part of something bigger,” says Co-founder and Director Lisa Goldblatt Grace. For instance, the agency plans social activities throughout the year to replace participants’ toxic memories with healthy, supportive friendships and traditions. In recent weeks, the agency brought together new and established mentees over a home-cooked meal to get to know each other and to share their gratitude.
Mentees can also join the agency’s Leadership Corps, which raises awareness of commercial sexual exploitation and advocates for policies that protect girls from abuse. Corps members learn professional skills like public speaking and punctuality, Goldblatt Grace says, while finding their voice advocating for others. Past projects have included creating pamphlets to educate mothers of exploited teens and photojournalism exhibits to help youth share their stories.
For many young women in the program, having a mentor leads to another aspiration—wanting to become a mentor to others. Still, the agency is careful to make sure a young person is far enough along in their recovery before taking on that helper role. Yet even as My Life My Choice employees and mentors help youth focus on the present, it’s hard not to get excited for what lies ahead. For Wilkinson’s mentee, Gloria, the path to her future may already be in motion. Says Goldblatt Grace, “We all hope to hire her someday.”
*name has been changed