When Susan Munsey was 16, she ran away from her broken home and met an older man she hoped would give her the love she felt was missing. Instead, he brainwashed her, abused her, and forced her into prostitution. She escaped after she was arrested less than four months later, but she said she always knew that God would use the experience in her work someday.
Thirty years later, in March 2010, Munsey founded Generate Hope, a non-profit that provides a safe house in San Diego, Calif., for women who are the victims of sex trafficking. Last week, Munsey won the title of L'Oreal Paris Women of Worth Honorees, an award that came with a $10,000 donation for her organization.
Munsey founded Generate Hope after volunteering with a sex-trafficking ministry at her church. "It originally started as me offering to give pro bono hours to the victims," said Munsey, a licensed psychologist. "But I realized there were no treatment programs in San Diego for these girls."
San Diego ranks eighth in a list of the top 10 U.S. cities for child prostitution, according to a 2009 FBI audit. Located 20 minutes from the U.S.- Mexican border, the city is an international gateway city for human trafficking.
Munsey says Generate Hope is "filling in the gap" for trafficking victims, giving them a place to recuperate and transition from the difficult lives they've experienced. The program, which just opened a new 15-room facility, offers rehabilitation for victims, and provides room, board, transportation, and educational opportunities.
"[Prostitution] made me feel like I was useless and nobody would ever care for me," one woman, identified as Stephanie, said in an informational video for Generate Hope's website. "But now I know people do." World California's request to interview some of the program participants was denied at this time.
The women currently staying with Generate Hope, ranging from 20 to 35 years old, come from all over the United States and Mexico. They are typically referred to Generate Hope through law enforcement. Many of them were trafficked at a very young age, and often were already victims of sexual abuse.
"Twelve is the average age a girl enters the trade, and they've lost out on their adolescence," Munsey said. "Many of them are runaways and foster children."
For the 2,500 runaways on the streets of San Diego, the threat is real: "Within 48 hours of a girl running away, she has good chance of being potentially procured into a life of prostitution," San Diego Police Department Detective James Hunter told San Diego public radio KPBS. Hunter also works on the FBI's Innocence Lost Task Force.
Like Munsey, many are tricked into prostitution by older men who promise love. "The women I work with today were [also] vulnerable, indoctrinated, shamed enough to keep them feeling insecure, and sometimes given enough attention to feel 'loved' enough to stay," Munsey said.
Participants in the program, which is currently capped at six residents, stay at the main house between three months to a year. Women are offered the chance to move into transitional housing once they are ready, with Generate Hope supplementing the cost.
"Generate Hope is the hands and feet of Jesus," says Steven Cooper, the pastor of Harbor Presbyterian Church where Munsey attends. "It's a systemic ministry helping to bring a systemic change to the city."
The program also includes an off-site educational facility in El Cajon and a job skills program. Most of the girls test at a 6th grade level so the program helps them work towards a GED and get into college or a trade school, Munsey said. A few months ago, they held a graduation for one of the women in the program who finished high school.
Generate Hope also started a line of body products called "Princess Spa" that is created and produced by women in the program, providing them with jobs and also raising money for the non-profit.
The organization also helps bring justice to the people who perpetrate sex trafficking. Hunter said the organization helps law enforcement gain the trust of former victims, especially in cases where their testimony is needed to convict their former pimps: "With the assistance of people like Susan Munsey and other organizations we work with, we can take a differentâ€¦way of trying to help them out of this lifestyle."