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The Teen Project's mission is to provide healing and hope to young women who have survived human trafficking and homelessness. This is accomplished by innovating programs focused on drug treatment, psychotherapy, life skills, higher education, and mentoring all with a trauma-informed lens.
The project currently has 126 beds throughout Southern California. They recently opened the only site for children that are victims of human trafficking in Orange County at Vera’s Sanctuary. This is a 30-bed site in the beautiful and serene Trabuco Canyon area. Vera’s Sanctuary is the only licensed residential drug treatment site in Orange County, California dedicated to victims of human trafficking.
Meet two of the Vera Sanctuary Residents
The following information was provided to Aiden Whisper by Lauri L. Burns, PMP, RADT Executive Director of The Teen Project.
"When I was seventeen, a very good-looking, young man in a nice car approached me one day when I was walking down the street. I was instantly starstruck when he told me he was a rapper. When he asked me to get in the car, there was no hesitation, I was completely enthralled! That is when things took a drastic wrong turn for me. He was not a rapper; he was a pimp. As soon as we were out of my neighborhood, he quickly transformed from a virtual angel to the worst devil I could ever imagine!"
My name is Apple.
I was born in New York in 2000 to parents who were both drug addicts. When I just two, my dad suffered a drug induced psychotic episode and choked me. I wound up in the hospital and Child Protective Services intervened. For the next two years I was in two different foster homes. The first one was with a lady named Ms. Reed. She was abusive and I was quickly removed from that foster home. I was then moved to another foster home with a lesbian couple. Both the parents and their older daughter took to abusing me almost immediately.
My mom was so upset, she did everything the social workers requested of her, including getting sober and getting rid of my dad. In no time, she succeeded in getting me back with her. In 2006, my mom got a boyfriend named Edy. I really loved him dearly. Edy was an alcoholic, but also a sweet kind man. I never saw him get angry and he really loved me. Although he drank a lot, I really bonded with him.
He was from Guatemala and hadn’t seen his family in thirteen years. At some point my mom thought it would be healing for him if we could be with his family, so we all picked up and moved to Guatemala. It was around this time that I started getting to know myself and realized that I may be gay. I was totally comfortable with the idea and it helped me to form a sense of self and an inner peace that I never had before.
Shortly after moving to Guatemala sweet Edy died from complications of alcoholism. Distraught and needing to move on, my mother and I returned to New York. It seemed like right after that, in 2010 my grandmother passed. I loved my grandmother and I always knew she loved me. This hit 25 me very hard and all the
losses were starting to pile up and have a great impact on me. In 2012, my mom made the decision to move to California so I could meet my dad again. I guess she thought he was in a different place in his life and we could trust him again. Unfortunately, as soon as we got here, she dove back into her addiction and she started prostituting.
A few years later, the social workers caught up with us again and I was returned to foster care. The system was a mess… I bounced through four different group homes and seven foster homes. Many of the foster families didn’t accept me because I identified as LGBTQ. Overwhelmed with loss, confusion and lacking a place to belong, I started using drugs. In 2017, I was placed in a group home in Culver City where Lauri Burns came to speak. During the meeting, she had asked if anyone had used hard drugs or needles. I was the only one who raised my hand in a room of about forty girls. After the meeting, I left immediately so she wouldn’t see me.
About fifteen minutes later, a staff member came into my room and gave me a God Box and Lauri’s number and reported that Lauri had left a message. The counselor informed me that Lauri said “You’re an amazing, strong girl and I know you will have good things in your future. In order to get you started, I am leaving this God Box for you. Please put all your prayers and worries for God in here, it is his mailbox.” I was overwhelmed with the gift, but my head was still running the show at that point. Shortly after that, I ran from that group home and had nowhere to go. Staying on the streets alone was difficult. That was about the time I met a thirty-seven-year-old man that wanted to help me. He told me “If you stay with me, I’ll take care of you and you’ll never run out of drugs.” I was naive to the fact that I’d have to do sexual favors for him. I thought he was just being nice to me. Once he had me drugged up, he’d raped me. This went on for several days and nights…It was a routine; drugged, raped, sodomized in my sleep, beatings, throwing away my clothes and finally the threat to kill me if I tried to leave. Unable to endure any more, I ran away several times. With nowhere to go, he would find me, and the routine would start all over again, but not until he beat me for running.
All in all, he kept me captive for the next six months. Each time he got me again, a piece of me chipped away… I started to lose hope that I would ever escape his hold on me. Knowing what the rest of my life would look like, my only hope was that I wouldn’t live very long. One day, he took me to a motel and left and never returned, thank God! I didn’t know where he was, if he died or just left and frankly, I didn’t care. Having been abused so badly by this man, I didn’t leave for a few days, in fear that he’d come back, find me and really hurt me. When the motel manager finally kicked me out, I knew I was finally free! I left and found my way to an old friend’s house and she said I couldn’t stay with her.
Back in my neighborhood again, I started to look for my mom in hopes that she was still alive. I was thankful when I found her, but she was still on the streets. We spent three days together, which ended in a fist fight. I was on the run again. It really became evident to me at this point that I had no place to return to or belong. I was desperate and I knew I needed help. Praying for a solution, a thought shot into my head. I remembered Lauri and I was blessed with a clear image in my mind of her number on that little sheet of paper in my God Box! I contacted her and she got me right into her facility in Los Angeles. For the first time ever, I was in a safe place, with people that weren’t abusing me, and I had dozens of sisters in the program with me. I was so scared to leave; I stayed for a year and six months. Lauri came to Los Angeles for a visit one day and was so excited to see me! She told me she would love for me to move to the Orange County, to be near her.
At the time it sounded far, and I feared the unknown, but it stayed in the back of my mind… I was curious. Well, this month, I moved from Los Angeles to Vera’s Sanctuary for Women. I couldn’t have made a better choice! Every day I take time to sit behind the house, let the wind hit my face and listen to the farm animals down the hill below and I feel God’s love. The universe whispers to me there… I am safe, free and about to launch into a life I never knew existed! I will graduate high school in Vera’s Sanctuary, and I am excited to learn that there are people that will support me to go to college! I have chosen my dream career. With the help of Lauri and a bunch of people at an event called Hot August Nights thrown by some of Lauri’s friends… I will be attending Advanced Beauty College.
My goal is to graduate, start to get an income and then go back to school for social work because I love working with people. I also hope that one day I will be able to work for Lauri and her team here at Vera’s Sanctuary for Women so I can give back what Lauri has given to me. She is a Godsend and I am so grateful to have her in my life today. Thank you so much Lauri for giving me a new life, a home and a family! You’re an amazing woman, mother and role model and I aspire to do what you do in the future! Love, Apple.