Safety Net

December 2018 View more

A Downers Grove organization provides support and shelter for young victims

Cassandra Ma speaking to more than 300 attendees at the Reclaim13 5K.

It may seem to most that sex trafficking is a problem that happens in far-off places, but the volunteers behind Reclaim13, a Downers Grove nonprofit, know it’s happening right around the corner too.

Children are being sexually exploited in our midst, says Cassandra Ma, a clinical psychologist who founded Reclaim13, named so because 13 is the average age children are first induced into trafficking.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates there are more than 100,000 children in the U.S. who are trafficked.

“It’s absolutely a huge, growing problem for our young people,” says Ma, who started the organization in 2012 after learning about the scale of the problem. As Ma, herself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, delved into the issue, she decided she wanted to help children reclaim their bodies and their lives.

“Children who have been exploited learn a message that there is no one who will help and that the best they can hope for is to survive,” she says. But Reclaim13 sends an entirely different message. “We show vulnerable children that they are not alone, that people do care, and people will help,” Ma says. “All children deserve to feel safe and loved.”

Ma discovered there are very few places for children affected by sexual trafficking to live as they recover their lives. According to Reclaim13, there are just 300 beds available to minors who are victims of sex trafficking in the United States; there are fewer than 15 beds in the state of Illinois. One of the nonprofit’s efforts has been to start Cherish House, a home for girls between the ages of 10 and 21 who are recovering from the trauma of sex trafficking. The home is staffed 24/7 and allows young people to heal, play, complete their education, and reclaim a path to hope.

“Once you recover the kids, you need a place for them to go,” says Ma. “Otherwise they end up going back to the same places where they were harmed.”

The inhabitants of Cherish House receive individual and group therapy, medical care, life skills training, and home schooling. They are usually referred to Cherish House by law enforcement agencies. “Our goal is to help them once again feel safe, physically and emotionally, and to recover from the trauma,” Ma says.

For those over 21, the nonprofit is working on developing a young adult program to help victims learn
to live independently.

Another goal is prevention. Reclaim13 recently received an $18,000 grant from the Rotary Club of Naperville, and it’s using the funds to create a video to educate parents and children about the dangers of sex trafficking. With the influence of the Internet, children are more at risk than ever of becoming victims even when they are in their own homes, Ma says.

“Because of the internet, children are exposed to strangers and people with ill intentions,” she notes. “The definition of who is a friend is has been lowered. It’s a cultural trend.”

The age-appropriate video is targeted to preadolescents and will be shown in schools. It will help children learn how to distinguish whether someone is truly a friend, and to be aware of problematic behaviors, such as when an adult is grooming them or wants them to keep secrets.

Rachel Ossyra, a member of the Rotary Club of Naperville, says her club wants to raise awareness.


Reclaim13 5K runners

“The thing that really got us resolved to get involved was the lack of educational materials to break the cycle,” Ossyra says. She says educating children and parents is one way to tackle the problem. “We overlook, at times, the vulnerable youth in our own community,” she says. “Kids can be groomed even they are living at home. It’s scary.”

For more information about Reclaim13’s mentor teams, prevention education, church coalitions, fitness events, or Cherish House recovery programs, visit