I’m in the middle of one of those existential moments. You might have experienced the same one. The one where you’re less than a month from college graduation and for the first time the next big step in life isn’t cut and dry like it’s always been. And like many soon-to-be-grads, everywhere I go, I get asked the same question. Over and over and over again. But it’s not the one you’re thinking--you know, the ominous “what are you doing after graduation,” that half of us dread so much right now. No, my question is much better.
“So, how’s the bike ride?”
The other night, I was asked this approximately 15 times in the span of a couple hours. Pretty soon, some of my friends were able to give the spiel for me: It’s good. She’s a little behind on training. She’s running low on time to get out there and ride. But all-in-all good, and she can’t wait to get out there this summer.
The problem is, I get asked this question so often, my answer has become routine and I forget reflect on how it really is going. Yes, I am behind on training and it’s hard in the middle of finals and senior year to-do’s to carve out some good training time. But what am I really experiencing when I get on that bike?
Today I rode 46 miles through northwest Austin, and I made myself really think about the question. I had to walk up some hills and wave at a few other cyclists who sped past me, but it felt so good pumping my legs to get moving past Austin’s beautiful hills and hundreds of wildflowers. The weather was perfect, and the thin coat of dirt covering all of my skin at the end of the ride made me feel nothing but satisfaction.
During those 46 miles, I rode past a couple brothels with vague “massage” signs and fully covered windows, hiding the dark world of the commercial sex industry. These places aren’t hard to find if your eyes are open. They are places I’ve driven by many times, but riding by them today heightened my sense of righteous anger and reminded me why this is more than just a bike ride. There are hundreds of these brothels in Austin, and that is just one setting where people are sold in the commercial sex industry. For others, it happens in hotel rooms, back rooms in bars, in strip clubs and in homes. The abuse is pervasive, and for so long as a country we have completely misunderstood what is going on, which has led to an insane deficit in care for victims of trafficking. Now, as we are bringing this issue into the light and are understanding what a victim of sex trafficking looks like, survivor care is just beginning. And that’s why the The Refuge is so essential.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Steven, the PR & Communications Director at The Refuge for DMST, and he told me all about the program. One of my favorite parts is the transition in and out cottages that will make up 2 of the 12 living spaces at The Refuge. The transition in cottage will allow each survivor’s needs to be fully assessed before she fully integrates into the program. It will be her first step into understanding what recovery will look like, and it will be guided by a team of therapists who are trained in building trust and helping the girls find recovery through relationships. The transition out cottage will be a survivor’s first step of independence while she is completing the programming at The Refuge. It will give her the headspace to step out into the rest of her life. Another one of my favorite pieces of programming is the UT charter school that will be on-site for the girls who are ready to go to school. The school will be able to adapt to various ages and levels of education, as well as expand and contract class sizes as the survivors’ needs change. These unique pieces of The Refuge’s programming will set up survivors for long-term success and well-being.
But it’s easy to focus on the flashy parts of the programming and forget that the journey of each survivor will be far from easy. As I walked up those hills today, leaning on my bike for support, I felt like my legs might give out from under me. I considered going home early--ending the ride halfway through. Then I thought about how these girls are going to experience intense frustration during their time at The Refuge. It’s feels good to hear about survivors finding freedom through life on a farm with therapy dogs, but in reality, each story is going to be an uphill battle. In the anti-trafficking movement, we know that many survivors run away from care. In fact, it’s considered part of the recovery process. But for these girls to heal, they have to be willing to push through that pain and reach the place where the hill levels out. And there at the top, even if just for a bit, they can look back and see how far they’ve come and be encouraged to keep going. Just like I felt in the middle of my ride today, it’s going to seem near impossible to reach the top. But the best part is, just like I will not be alone on my ride this summer, these girls will not be alone in their recovery. They will have more resources and support than any other survivor before them has experienced. The Refuge is making sure of that, and they are doing so with big plans to make those resources available to many, many more survivors in the future as they expand The Refuge to other cities and states.
Though I finally made it up those hills and back home, my little legs can only do so much on their own. Without your support behind us, our efforts are futile. Stop and think of a frustrating time in your life when you would not have made it out without the love and support of another person. Let’s make that support happen for the first girls who will walk into The Refuge this August. And let’s make that possible for the many survivors to come after them. Support our ride and the work of The Refuge by making a donation. Help keep my little legs going, and who knows, maybe next time I won’t have to walk up the hill.