It took her years to escape a personal nightmare. A nightmare that began with her own act of charity.
We’ll call her Emma. Six years ago, she reluctantly agreed to help another single parent out, providing a place for him and his young child to stay – for just a fleeting time, until better arrangements could be found.
But what Emma didn’t realize: she was being groomed. It began on social media, creating a facade of warmth and understanding. And, once they connected in real life and he moved in, Emma was about to lose all control.
In just a matter of weeks, the man’s demeanor changed. He became demanding, from how food was cooked to how he was to be pampered to even trying to abuse her children. When she said she had enough, and stood up to him, he turned violent – punching her in front of the children, then dragging her into the bedroom and violating her.
She became his property – personally and sexually – and was forced to comply with his every demand. That soon included his friends and acquaintances.
“Afterwards, he told me that that’s what will happen every time I say no,” she recalled. “I never said the word ‘no’ again throughout that entire ordeal. I still have trouble with it today. We were prisoners. I had to walk a very narrow line. I had rules that I had to know and recite at any given moment. We were not allowed out of his sight.”
The torture continued for 10 months until Emma garnered the strength to escape. She found a temporary refuge for her and her now-teen-age children. But there was no permanence. How can there be, looking over your shoulder every few minutes, wondering when the person you fear most will find you again?
Human trafficking is a crime that’s hidden in plain sight. These victims often are sleeping in their own bed at night, going to school or work, and no one knows what they go through.
Megan Brown, founder of Hope Found
Help is But a Phone Call Away
In nearby Jonesboro, Arkansas, former social worker Megan Brown teamed with three friends to forge a nonprofit that would help victims of human trafficking. They called it Hope Found of Northeast Arkansas, a name that would be so apropos for Emma even though it would take her a few more years to discover this resource.
Brown realized the evils of human trafficking while volunteering in Nashville, Tennessee. When she moved back to her hometown of Jonesboro, in 2011, she realized there were few places to turn in the state for help.
“Human trafficking is a crime that’s hidden in plain sight,” Brown explained. “These victims often are sleeping in their own bed at night, going to school or work, and no one knows what they go through.”
Human traffickers take advantage of the most vulnerable people in society: children, the homeless, those struggling to make ends meet. They know when to show interest, how to gain trust and how to exploit.
“Unfortunately, it’s in every community,” Brown added. “In Arkansas, we often see it in familial trafficking, where a family member forces a child to engage in sex acts to pay for bills. It’s also common among agricultural workers, in places like nail salons where you exchange sexual acts for jobs or money.”
By 2022, Brown and her friends and co-founders Miranda Ballard, Audra King and Mary Sellers had turned Hope Found of Northeast Arkansas into a viable remedy for this vile violation of the vulnerable. They provide educational resources while coordinating services for victims and survivors.
But as last December arrived, and 2022 ended, Emma was just a couple of hours away, but out of options.
A Lifeline from Jonesboro
For five years, Emma had found temporary solutions. But on Dec. 10, 2022, she and her children found themselves homeless, living in an old car in the parking lot of the Conway Christian Center in Central Arkansas. There, she was told to reach out to Hope Found.
“I cannot tell you how low and hopeless we were,” Emma said. “But immediately, Megan called around and found jobs that were open, and sent them to me. She found apartment openings, helped me get approved for assistance and then, a house for me and my children. We had nothing to furnish the house with, so Hope Found supplied everything – our living room furniture, dressers, TVs, a refrigerator, a stove, bedding, and cleaning and hygiene supplies.”
For the first time in a half-dozen years, Emma and her children felt safe and secure. For Hope Found, though, it was just one of many missions.
Back in Jonesboro, people continued to rally around Hope Found’s work.
Regions Bank Private Wealth Management associate Shelly Lamb was introduced to Brown and the nonprofit. Initially asked to provide financial support, she jumped in feet first as a volunteer.
“My view of trafficking was that it happened in big cities, to people lost on vacation – stories I’d heard before,” Lamb said. “I didn’t realize it was happening in towns the size of Jonesboro or that it was happening with family members, even small children. I didn’t know the way people were manipulating and taking control of other people’s lives.”
As Lamb got more involved with Hope Found, Regions was providing training for associates to help recognize the signs of human trafficking. As people like Emma discovered Hope Found, volunteers like Lamb helped produce new ways to raise the organization’s profile – and its bottom line.
Held last week, the 3rd Annual Ride Against Trafficking took motorcyclists to five different locations across town, each with a different message and reward. The fundraiser now draws thousands. In the fall, Hope Found raises money with its Date Night with a Purpose, where local restaurants provide fine-dining opportunities in the comfort of your home.
“They partner with a local restaurant and sell tickets,” Lamb said. “You get dinner for two for $100 at a nice restaurant, and it’s delivered to your door. The first year I participated, I did deliveries. I also got myself a dinner to go, and after deliveries my husband and I had a date night of our own.”
In addition to providing funds and raising more, Regions is working on delivering financial education for Hope Found clients to help them adjust to a better world.
“The biggest thing that struck me was our position to help,” Lamb said. “This is a local organization that can help us understand what our community needs are and make an impact right here. They focus on prevention, but also on rehabilitation and helping their survivors become independent.”
This is a local organization that can help us understand what our community needs are and make an impact right here. They focus on prevention, but also on rehabilitation and helping their survivors become independent.
Shelly Lamb, Private Wealth Management associate at Regions Bank
‘The Work is Just Beginning’
Thanks to Megan Brown, Hope Found and volunteers like Shelly Lamb, Emma is in a much different place. Her eldest just graduated from high school, the first in her family to do so. Her daughter is in choir. She’s looking ahead, not over her shoulder.
Emma found work cleaning houses – it’s now a full-fledged business – using flyers and business cards Hope Found created and printed for her. When her old car died, Hope Found delivered a donated automobile. She goes to therapy weekly to help her deal with the PTSD from her trauma.
“I still can’t believe it all, sometimes,” Emma said. “Every time we hit the bottom of the barrel, God sent us help through Hope Found. And the most amazing thing about Megan and Hope Found is that they are genuine in how much they care and how much they want to help victims of trafficking take our life back.”
Just a few years after it was founded, Hope Found has a vision of helping many others. Brown’s quest is to provide residential housing for clients.
“That’s a big dream of mine,” Brown said. “Right now, we’re focusing on solidifying our program and how we work with our clients. Then we’ll move into what does a safe house look like, and how we can help our clients in residential housing. There’s only one safe house in Arkansas – and it’s four hours away from Jonesboro.”
It’s a dream that Lamb hopes she, other volunteers and patrons can realize, as well.
“As a woman, you have this constant fear that, if something were to happen, how do you overcome it?” Lamb said. “Now, because of Hope Found, I know there is an ‘after’ for these survivors. But the work is just beginning.”