In every community, individuals and families experience vulnerabilities to human trafficking. Poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, broken families, low self-esteem, isolation, developmental delays and unsafe social media exposure are life experiences that place an individual at a higher risk of exploitation. However, no man is an island. Each lived experience becomes woven into the fabric of a community, a group of people whose lives intersect. Our collective societal experience shifts in the wake of the ripple of events in individual stories. In our efforts to reach out and lend support to the one who has suffered exploitation, we believe strength lies in leveraging the power and significance of community.
Unbound’s goal is to empower individuals in their unique roles with the knowledge, insight and tools needed to combat trafficking in their own sphere of influence. As we equip groups of individuals, entire communities begin to stand at the ready to guard their vulnerable and help their wounded. It’s a beautiful process and one that continually inspires hope for the future.
Since our conception in 2013, Unbound Houston has served the Greater Houston Area, looking to inspire hope and spark change. We serve to educate our community on human trafficking as it happens right here at home and help them see how they can play an invaluable role in seeing this injustice meet its end. Along the way, we’ve created multiple programs to bolster our community and begin to turn the tides to bring light to a subject that for too long thrived in the dark. JVUB, our program for girls on probation, is a program dear to our heart, yielding countless impactful moments, heartbreaking stories and encouraging testimonies. Thanks to our faithful team of volunteers implementing this program over the last four years, we have built trust and rapport in our community, allowing us to increase our service and collaborate with our partners.
As non-profits or social service agencies, creating programs is often how we enact our mission and serve our target populations. Our journey to create and run JVUB is a story of a group of leaders driven to meet a need made evident. We organically followed a series of steps to create a program that would meet that need, foster collaboration and mobilize envisioned volunteers. At the time, it felt like we didn’t know what we were doing. We weren’t following a script or handbook. However, looking back on our story, there are clearly defined steps and a course of action that anyone looking to begin a new work in their community can follow. The subsequent outline is our story of a community banding together to create change. In highlighting our steps, I hope a sort of yellow-brick road emerges for others to follow and write hope stories of their own.
Identify a need
The first step is to identify a need in the community. As we researched the vulnerabilities experienced by the majority of trafficking victims, the data showed that the majority of minor sex trafficking victims crossed with either the child welfare or the juvenile justice systems. Knowing this population to be at a higher risk, we set out to have the opportunity to interact with them and provide a way for them to hear valuable information that could save their lives and empower them to help their friends.
Share about the need
Once a need and a target population are identified, it is key to share what you see with others and invite them to help. We wanted to reach youth in the juvenile justice system with prevention education. As we did Human Trafficking 101 presentations to various audiences in our community, we shared about our dream to empower youth in the juvenile justice system to know the warning signs of human trafficking and how to watch out for their friends. In one such presentation, we mentioned our dream and, after the presentation, one audience member leaned over to our Director to say that he was the head judge for all of the juvenile courts in our local county. He wanted to hear more about our idea and see how he could help.
When you’ve identified and shared the need, it’s necessary to engage and envision the stakeholders. Find those with decision-making power and inform them of the vision. It’s important to hear their thoughts, understand their concerns and see the need from their perspective. Listen as they share the way they believe the need could best be met and how a service from you would benefit them and the community they serve. Our original idea was to have a program for the youth in detention. In our meeting with leaders at the department, they informed us that we would reach more youth if they made our program a requirement for youth on probation. This approach ensured that we would reach the majority of the juveniles that come through their system.
Create a plan
Once stakeholders have been engaged, devise a plan that would best meet their needs. Begin to structure a program that aligns the task at hand with your abilities and capacity. We worked with the juvenile justice department to decide how best to serve their youth. We agreed on a schedule that allowed us to present the content in a time frame that both our team and theirs could properly facilitate.
Empower a program lead
In addition to a solid plan, a program lead is essential to creating structure and stability, a clear line of communication and a course of action that drives the vision forward. If possible, it is helpful for this individual to be a part of the process as early as possible, even as early as “identifying a need.” This ensures that the project leader supports the vision, networks with stakeholders and knows the plan. Their input throughout the early stages of the process can aid to secure their buy-in for the program. In our case, a volunteer with strong leadership skills and a background in education was passionate about prevention education. When she heard of our dream to reach youth involved in the system, she was keen to get on board. Her input, efforts and leadership were vital to the creation and success of JVUB. Though she has since moved on, our program continues to grow from the content and team she built.
Once the needs, plan and leaders are clear, it is time to write a curriculum. A curriculum can be defined as the components of a course. No matter if the program is educational or service-focused, the components of the project must be clearly outlined and the objectives defined. Writing curriculum requires creating a series of linear content, activities, services or projects to lead a participant to the desired outcomes. Well-defined objectives result in a soundly-structured course, in which every part is intentionally incorporated to serve the overall purpose. JVUB is designed to serve our community by equipping youth in at-risk situations to know their value and recognize signs of exploitative situations. We want to empower them to stand up for themselves and their peers and to not only stay safe, but be agents of change in their unique spheres of influence. JVUB stands for Junior Varsity Unbound. When the youth complete our program, they will be ready to represent Unbound and the anti-trafficking movement wherever they go!
Recruit and train volunteers
The next step is to pull together a team. Begin to reach out to your network, advertising your new program. Stir passion and provide inspiration by sharing vision as you invite people to join this new venture. “There is a need in our community. We are meeting it. This is how you can be a part of this vision and make a difference.” Once a group of interested people are assembled, it’s vital that they be trained to understand the DNA of your organization, what it means to be a volunteer on this team, how the program will run and what their roles are. A strong team knows to whom they belong and understands the mission. We began to share with our volunteer-base and networks about our program. We made the ask for volunteers at the end of presentations and reached out to our friends. In time, we gathered a large enough troop to enable us to implement our plan sustainably.
Once the curriculum is complete to the best of one’s ability and the volunteers are trained and cleared to serve, it’s time to begin! Taking the plunge can feel scary and uncertain, but it’s a crucial part of launching any impactful and sustainable program. We began our program in the fall of 2016. Our first few classes were filled with unexpected obstacles and awkward conversations as we learned to interact with a population with whom our team was not familiar. But we did it. And we kept doing it.
Test and rework
The first time through is often bumpy and reveals holes and leaks no one noticed before. Those little issues never surface until the ship is set to sail. In the early stages of implementation, taking stock of what is solid and what is leaking provides the information and perspective necessary to improve. When something doesn’t work well, alter it. When boundaries need to be set, clarify and communicate them. If the participants resonate with one aspect of the program, incorporate more of that. Creating a program is never a one-and-done effort. True excellence is achieved through constant evaluation and improvement. As we began our roll-out of JVUB, we saw how much we had yet to learn. We saw what the youth related to and what made them feel disconnected. We identified what setting best suited our class to provide an environment that optimized connection and education. Over the last four years, we have continued to tweak and improve our program, consistently striving to be a valuable, relevant source of support and empowerment for the youth we serve. Their stories, courage, strength and intelligence have overwhelmed and inspired us, making us better and pushing us to keep going, even when the going gets tough. There is a need. But there is also hope. And though the need originally inspired us, it’s hope that fuels us for the work ahead.
The creation of JVUB has been a journey that’s impacted lives, served our community and strengthened our relationships. We’ve created a platform that enables envisioned volunteers to interface with youth that need to know that someone cares about them. Our heart and passion is to prevent students from falling into the trap of human trafficking. Through JVUB, we’re able to speak value and truth and provide information and resources to help them meet needs in a safe way and get help when needed.
Across our communities there are countless needs, hope-stories waiting to be written. Embedded in our communities are also countless incredible leaders, ordinary people with a passion to serve those around them to elevate the common experience to the betterment of everyone. We hope that our story and these highlighted stepping stones serve to encourage those with a dream that it is possible. It all starts with the first step.
By Christa Mayfield
Director of Prevention Education