By Heidi Simmons

In the Coachella Valley, human trafficking is not just in our backyard; it’s happening right under our noses. If you find that hard to believe, just ask survivors Kassandra, Alyssa and Ashley.

At a recent event held at UCR Palm Desert, sponsored by SafeHouse of the Desert, Operation SafeHouse and Kaiser Permanente, three brave women, for the first time, publicly shared their very personal stories. In doing so, they hope to bring an awareness about human trafficking and help others who are still in captivity.

Kassandra is 19 years old. She has beautiful eyes, porcelain skin and shiny dark hair. Her sweet smile suggests shyness and innocence. At times she blends her words together making it difficult to understand. Perhaps it is an unconscious strategy, since what she says is so difficult to fully comprehend. When she was 14 years old, she was pimped in Palm Springs.

At age six, an uncle molested Kassandra. Her family didn’t believe her and her parents soon divorced. Her mother became addicted to prescription drugs. Her grandmother, Kassandra’s primary caregiver, died. Her older sister abused drugs.

By age ten, she hardly had a childhood. She moved in with her dad. “I was always daddy’s little girl. So I was happy,” said Kassandra. “At 13, I came home after softball practice and my dad was in a bad mood. He said he didn’t need me anymore. He had no purpose for me. That was the beginning of my downfall.”

Vulnerable, Kassandra craved attention. She let someone sweet talk her. “Someone can get into your head so much,” said Kassandra. “You feel like they love me and care about me. But all they really care about is what you give them. They don’t care about anything else. It was the most terrifying thing I ever went through in my entire life.” Kassandra entered “the life” – prostitution — to please the man she lived with, who was 15 years her senior. She was only 14.

No one paid any attention to her roaming the streets and hotels. “No one would talk to me about my situation,” said Kassandra. “No one wondered what was wrong with me or bothered to ask or care. So I kept doing it.”

At 16, Kassandra was kidnapped. She was tied-up, beaten, raped, tortured, burned with hot water and cigarettes. Eventually, Kassandra got free and was arrested for being a runaway. She spent ten months in Juvenile Hall and a light clicked on – after three years in the life she didn’t want to do it anymore.

She found help with Operation SafeHouse. In May 2011, Kassandra was a witness in a trial against her abuser. He was convicted. “Nothing can take away the scars that I have, but now I have hope thanks to SafeHouse,” said Kassandra as she tried but failed to hold back tears. When she gained her composure she said, “I strive everyday to, not forgive, but to overcome what happened to me. I don’t want people to see what happened to me as who I am now.” Kassandra has completed high school with extra credits. She’s in college, attending as she can pay.

Kassandra says she couldn’t be happier. “I’m so thankful to them [SafeHouse]. They are amazing, amazing people.” She has found people who really care about her. Kassandra no longer seeks the attention of men in a negative way.

“I’m a lot stronger. I don’t look at myself as a victim anymore; I look at myself as a survivor because that is what I am. I live my life everyday by this motto: I am who I am today, not because of what has happened to me, but in spite of it.” Kassandra has been free for two years.

Alyssa is 22 years old. She is confident but cautious. Her pride and joy sat on her lap. He is her six-month-old über-darling and contented child. He has her curly hair. Clearly he is responsible for her budding strength and courage. Alyssa, this sweet young mother today, had worked as a stripper and as a prostitute at all the major hotels in the CV.

When Alyssa was four, her mother’s friend’s son sexually abused her. Her mother came in during the abuse and took Alyssa, but acted like nothing had happened. Her parents divorced when she was six and she never saw her father again. She took care of her little sister. With no father figure and an unhappy childhood, she sought out a different life.

After high school graduation, Alyssa had a fight with her boyfriend, whom she thought she’d marry someday. Distraught, she went to meet a contact to buy weed but instead fell victim to a stranger. The stranger offered her a place to live and drugs.

“We started hanging out. He showed me a life that was fun, and I thought it was good. He didn’t do any harm to me,” said Alyssa. “Weeks went by and then he said ‘Nothing comes for free.’ I didn’t even know what he meant when he said he was a pimp.”

He told her she had to work if she wanted to continue the relationship. She started stripping and then worked on the streets. Alyssa was abused, starved, raped and beaten. “He told me all kind of lies.”

That was her life for three years. When Alyssa was arrested for prostitution, an inmate told her about Jesus and how he forgave prostitutes. That story changed her. Alyssa went to SafeHouse and turned her life around.

In school now, Alyssa wants to be a doctor so she can help people. “I thank God everyday for bringing my son into this world and bringing me out of the life,” said Alyssa. “I want to thank Operation SafeHouse. They have really worked with me and have been the support and resource that I needed. They have provided comfort and guidance for what I’m trying to do.” She looks forward to watching her son grow. Alyssa has been free for two years.

Ashley is 29 years old. She has thin blonde hair pulled back tight in a bun. She wears colorful scrubs and stares directly at the audience. She is open, prepared to talk, but her vulnerability lurks beneath the surface. For 12 years, she was sold for sex across the country and here in the CV.

Ashley lived at home with two loving parents. Her father had an off and on drug problem and when he became abusive, she ran away from home. She was 13. “I met the wrong people at the wrong time,” said Ashley. “I thought they cared about me and were the family I was missing. It was something I wasn’t getting at home.”

Looking for a connection, Ashley thought she met the older sister she always wanted. The woman was a trafficker. She introduced her to drugs and men. After being with her for two years, she changed pimps. Over the 12 years in the life, Ashley had 25 different pimps. Her quota was $1,500 a night. She was abused, raped, traded and beaten. A customer bashed Ashley’s head in with a crowbar. It took forty-two staples to close the wound. Her wrist was broken trying to protect herself.

“It is ugly what they do to young girls. They find out what their weaknesses are. It can be a man or a woman. They prey off these young girls who are naive and confused,” said Ashley “At 13, you want friends, family. You want people to care about you. It’s very, very sad what these girls go through on a daily basis.”

Out of the life style for two years, Ashley lives with her parents and her 11-year-old son. She is on her way to becoming a registered nurse. She wants to work with the girls in Juvenile Hall and SafeHouse. “Not everybody survives this lifestyle,” said Ashley. “I want to show them there are people who understand and care. Someone who will love and support them.”

Ashley shares her story to inspire those in the audience to make a difference. “As nervous as I am, I do it so you will want to help. Because if you don’t, they don’t have anyone who will. We have to do this together. We have to help these girls get off the streets. It happens everywhere. In every major city, in every major hotel, I guarantee you, there is a trafficker and a victim.”

After they women spoke, a candlelight vigil was held on the campus patio. Nearly 80 people held flickering tea lights in their hands. The women each read a poem written by another survivor. The poems reflected their pain, hope and struggle. After each reading, the entire group recited aloud: Still I rise/I am and I count. I will be/To be Free, Free, Free!

Talking with Kassandra, Alyssa and Ashley you get a sense of their innocence and joy. They have been born again and they are glade to be alive. They are grateful to be free!

All three still have major challenges to overcome. They have arrest records, bad credit and everyday struggles to keep moving ahead with their lives. SafeHouse continues to help them navigate back to a productive and healthy life.

January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Operation SafeHouse is the victim service provider for the Riverside County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. For over 20 years, SafeHouse has been providing short and long-term services to homeless and runaway youth and young adults. Their human trafficking program serves labor and sex trafficking victims from children to adults, including domestic US citizens and foreign nationals.

“I think it is hard for us to imagine that human trafficking is happening, sex slavery is happening, modern day slavery is happening in our communities,” said Jennifer O’Farrell, SafeHouse Program Director and moderator of the event. “But the reality is, it is! We are seeing victims everyday come to our door needing services, needing help, needing to find freedom from a life of slavery.” Currently, SafeHouse has 181 cases they are serving between Riverside and Thousand Palms.

If you think you have come in contact with a victim of human trafficking, call the Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline at 888 3737 888. For SafeHouse of the Desert, call 760 343 3211. SafeHouse is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For ways to donate and help, go to their website