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Riverside County shelter for human trafficking survivors is a sanctuary for hope and transformation

Protected with an undisclosed address, Rebirth Homes utilizes mentors and faith-based volunteer services to strengthen the lives of young women who have survived the horrors of sex trafficking.

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Located just outside the city limits of Riverside, Rebirth Homes, a nonprofit providing housing for survivors of human trafficking, uses healing and life-skill training to help grow and lift women into the people they were created to be. Like a caterpillar that slowly metamorphosizes into a butterfly, the survivors experience transformation and the steady process leading to the birth of a new self.

“We see the metamorphosis take place,” said Debbie Martis, the CEO and founder. Rebirth Homes’ logo, a butterfly, she said, is the perfect representation of just that.

To date, the sanctuary has aided close to 140 women, aged 18 and older. Some of the survivors come from all over Southern California, including the Inland Empire; some are from out-of-state. Whatever their story, Martis said the primary goal is to restore in them hope – from being at once tethered to affliction – and care for their needs, whether that be through case management, transitional housing, or both.

“We really just love them where they’re at; we’re consistent in our love and try to plant seeds of truth and replace those lies that they’ve been told by their exploiters,” Martis said.

After being assessed to determine their fit for the programs, the women work one-on-one with a mentor who has volunteered to assist them as they work through their healing. Susan Anderson, a mentor and organizer for Rebirth Homes’ events, said she’s learned “so much about myself” through the work.

“It’s kind of like filling each other’s tank, you know, you help me, I help you. I’ll help change you, you help change me and together we can create something beautiful,” Anderson said.

For Martis, the true merit to their quality-over-quantity strategy is the power that comes from one life being changed at a time. Although she would love to rescue all the women, she said it’s just as empowering to see one make it through.

“When we’re dealing with this level of trauma, and the complexity of it, we’re seeing that by really just focusing on each individual and providing the support that’s needed, which is a lot of support, we’re going to focus on the one,” Martis said.

How it all started

Before her role at Rebirth Homes, Martis was juggling a rather different life in the corporate world. Her cognizance to the realities of modern slavery, slim, and any thought that she would soon be leading an organization for women carrying stories only trauma could write, not in the least likely.

It wasn’t until 2008, at 39 years old, did Martis get hit in the face with hard facts about this viral injustice. She was attending the Catalyst Conference – a series of live discussions focused on church leaders – when the topic of human trafficking came up. At the time, she said, 27 million people around the world were trafficked (that number is closer to 40 million now). The shocking truths rattled her.

“I remember [the conference] played this video that showed the story of, like, a family selling their daughter into the sex trade. It really rocked me,” Martis said.

Martis would eventually come to learn that human trafficking “occurs when a trafficker uses a form of force, fraud or coercion to control” another human being in performing commercial sex acts or other labor-related services. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in the U.S. alone, more than 22,000 victims and survivors were identified in 2019, a 19% increase from 2018. California remains one of the largest trafficking sites in the nation.

Touched by what she was reading, Martis began praying at her church and with a few others created a new ministry to bring awareness to the issue. She said she initially thought her role in combating human trafficking was to be an advocate through prayer. Little did she know the challenges that lay ahead would lead her to discovering her purpose.

Fast-forward to 2012, Martis decided to submit an application to Leadership Riverside, a committee of Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce, after a friend brought it to her attention. Martis said one of the questions asked, “What would you do to make our city better?” Just prior, Martis had noticed boarded-up homes in the area while on a drive. She had still been thinking of a project idea when the vision to use the abandoned homes in Riverside for survivors of trafficking was born.

“I had thought,’These homes need to be rebuilt and they need to be used for some purpose to help people redeem their lives and restore their lives,’” she said.

Soon after, Martis discovered that along Riverside’s University Avenue, prostitution and trafficking ran rampant. After much prayer, she said she received confirmation from God to move forward with her vision and use the homes for good.

“The more I talked to people, the more I realized it was just like these doors were opening,” Martis said.

Within the next two years, from 2012–2014, Martis obtained a 501(c)(3) status and focused on managing grassroots efforts while learning more about modern slavery as much she could. Rebirth Homes finally had its first public event in 2014, a fundraiser aimed at spreading awareness of human trafficking as an issue in Riverside by bringing the community together.

According to Cheryl Sicher, the lead mentor at Rebirth Homes, Riverside, in general, is “a hotbed for trafficking victims” due to the city’s proximity to five freeways. This makes transporting the women easier for pimps who seek to relocate their services, she said. Today, prostitution has become more valuable than selling drugs because it is reusable, Sicher added.

“Where [drug dealers] have to find their source to sell, prostitution is always readily reusable. [Women and girls] can be used five, six, seven times a day and it’s just so sad,” she said.

Sicher, 67, has been with Rebirth Homes since its humble beginnings. Her husband Bob Sicher, 63, used to work in real estate and owned the land where the sanctuary now stands. She said, together they helped provide a location to Martis’ dream.

By September 2017, the first Rebirth Homes house opened to receive survivors. Today, the nonprofit is a cumulation of two homes that sit on 1.3 acres of land. One of the homes has five bedrooms – one of them used by staff only – and the other has four rooms. Typically, the women get access to their own room, Martis shared, other times there may be two to a room.

Behind the purpose

On its website, Rebirth Homes details a focus on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing through one of their two-year programs. The idea here is to teach the women that attention to both the physical and non-physical entities of their bodies is equally necessary. Martis said after her own personal journey visiting a naturopathic doctor, and from what she learned within her family, she realized how truly connected the human body is.

“We have to recognize that we’re a whole person,” she said. “Some people I would say, ‘Okay, they’re doing great healing spiritually, but these other areas are not healing.’ I just saw a lot of separation in the areas and with mental health.”

Habits like exercise, healthy diets and counseling are also recommended to the women but, ultimately, it is up to them to accept the help that is available, Martis said.

“I do think the one thing about working with survivors that’s really critical is for them to make the choice of, ‘Hey, this is what I’m choosing to do,’” she said.

Given their varying levels of trauma and PTSD, Rebirth Homes recognizes that the women need the freedom to make their own decisions. Forcing any practices on them, regardless of the intended benefits, would defeat the purpose as many are prone to relapse at any given point. Martis said the general relapse rate for survivors is anywhere between 8-15 times.

Although it is rewarding to see when the women push through to the other side, working with survivors of trafficking never becomes agreeable with time. Anderson said no amount of training can truly prepare volunteers for what lies ahead.

“There’s so much behind the scenes that people don’t realize you have to do and deal with and go through [to be a mentor]. That’s why very few people come through the door and stay,” she said.

When platonic relationships are built with the women, mentors are often at risk of being hurt if they appear too naive and absentminded. Because many of the survivors have had to repeatedly protect themselves, lest they be abused time and time again, they have learned to take advantage of anyone who shows them compassion to get what they want. This is how people can fall victim to their manipulation.

“[The survivors] are definitely brainwashed and it’s important to get them off the streets, but you have to do it very safely,” Sicher said.

Anderson said she was hurt by this manipulation herself at one point but has since learned to relate on their level.

“It’s like, okay, you can’t let your guard down; you have to stay professional,” she said. “But at the same time, you need to let them know they can trust you to confide in you.”

The 65-year-old said God gave her the gift to want to help others wherever she goes. One day, during a drive home while listening to Roger Marsh on KBRITE Radio – a station she’d been listening to for three years at the time – she heard about human trafficking. Anderson said the details broke her heart. By 2016, she began volunteering at Rebirth Homes. Her journey forward has not always been easy but she said she is constantly growing through it.

“I keep saying, ‘Why am I still here? Why am I still doing this?’ It’s because this is what [God] wants me to do. This is where he wants me to be,” Anderson said.

Light in the darkness

But better tomorrows are always on the horizon. Martis said she credits the women’s growing relationship with faith for how she’s seen them transform. So far, Rebirth Homes has seen approximately 15 survivors choose to be baptized.

“I’ve seen so many lives, healed and redeemed,” she said. “Part of the journey for [survivors] is learning, ‘Okay, yeah. You know, my life does have a greater purpose.’”

Once they have completed their program and are ready to work or go back to school, the women choose to either go back to family, stay in Riverside, or go to some other familiar area. There are times, naturally, when going back to their family can reignite negative habits.

“We’ve had several actually ask to come back because it’s just part of the healing process,” Martis said.

That healing process, however, has been difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the healing program, Rebirth Homes utilizes mental health strengthening. This prepares survivors as they work through case management when telling their stories. But due to COVID-19 safety protocols, they were hit with setbacks when critical services, such as legal support, were unavailable as Riverside courts were shut down, making intervention impossible.

Early statewide mandates also forced the women to stay inside the homes, which was retraumatizing for those who had been controlled in similar ways in the past. Martis said, during the pandemic, trafficking increased exponentially as many victims were forced to stay home with their abusers.

“Most of the transactions [to purchase women] happen online so it just kind of got easier for [exploiters to further engage with the business],” she said.

In response, Rebirth Homes adjusted programming to fill the free time, and they were forced to greatly reduce community outreach. Within the past year and a half, programs have gone from being in-person to virtual to hybrid and slowly back to in-person.

Martis said Freedom Shop, Rebirth Homes’ social enterprise, has been like a “ray of sunshine” during this time. This venture helped employ all the women part-time to make products, such as candles, sold directly on the website.

“The whole purpose of our social enterprise is to give purpose and meaning, to provide employment and job skill training, and to prepare each survivor for long-term employment as well as working through any triggers that might be associated with a trauma that could come up at work,” Martis said.

Her ultimate dream, Martis added, is first to open a Freedom Shop storefront to “build sustainability for Rebirth Homes and for the people that we serve.” Then, she hopes to expand the sanctuary’s services and eventually go global by the next five years. She said there’s potential to open a Rebirth Homes in Southern Nevada soon, too.

As of now, the sanctuary is in need of more resources, including staff and volunteers. Currently, mentors are the means of transportation for the women to get to important outings like medical appointments, narcotics anonymous (NA) meetings or simply the gym. Sicher said as the lead mentor she works eight-hour days, three days a week. Aside from this work, the retiree said she’s also heavily involved in homeless outreach with The Grove Community Church through Path of Life, a local nonprofit dedicated to restoring the lives of people experiencing homelessness in the greater Riverside area.

This evening, Rebirth Homes is celebrating their annual fall festival at the church – one of its partners – which aims to bring the Riverside community together to shed awareness on human trafficking. Complete with a cornhole tournament and barbeque dinner, guests at the in-formal event can expect a live band, a silent auction and a word from a member of the Riverside County Human Trafficking Task Force.

Both Sicher and Anderson agree that awareness of human trafficking is the most important element to eradicating slavery. Sicher said people must “report what you’ve seen to the police.”

“I wish [people] could know how much good could come from [advocacy] if they saw through the girls’ eyes instead of looking at it through the world because the world is very judgmental,” Anderson said.