Unlikely Heroes provides second chance to trafficked survivors


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Austin Hurst presents Erica Greve and Unlikely Heroes with a check for $1,000,000 during the Unlikely Heroes 6th Annual Recognizing Heroes Charity Benefit at The Ritz-Carlton. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images for Unlikely Heroes )

By: Rachel Hawkins, NDG Staff Writer

“I grew up in the 80s’ and I was always taught ‘stranger danger’ but trafficking is not always abductions,” Rebecca Bender, keynote speaker and human trafficking survivor said. “It’s a gradual expansion of boundaries and an increase of trust.”

Founded by Erica Greve in 2011, Unlikely Heroes, a non-profit organization has rescued more than 400 children across the world from human trafficking. They have also opened six restoration homes in the United States, Mexico, Thailand, and the Philippines. They are able to provide every child they save with safe housing medical care, trauma therapy, education, and job training.

On Oct. 27 Unlikely Heroes held their 6th annual Recognizing Heroes Awards Dinner and Charity Benefit. Award-winning actors, actresses, and singers attended the event to speak about their involvement in the organization. Austin Hurst of Hurst Capital announced he was pledging a one million dollars matching grant to help 200 children and give them a full restorative care for one year.

“At the time I was working at Children’s Hospital in the San Francisco Bay area, and I saw a little girl who was 11 years old, was mentally challenged and couldn’t read or write,” Erica Greve, founder and CEO of Unlikely Heroes said. “I’ll never forget the moment when I walked into the emergency department room she was sitting in and she was sitting and coloring a picture of a horse. She had been trafficked by a 29-year-old man who she was calling her boyfriend.”

When Greve asked the girl how she met her boyfriend she said when she was walking home from school one day there was a man who was staring at her from his car, and the next day he started talking to her, and then she said he became her boyfriend because he was the first person in her entire life who said “I love you.” The girl then said after she fell in love with him, the man then introduced her to the other girls he trafficked and who she called her cousins.

When the girl’s mother pulled Greve aside and asked if there was a program to help convince her mentally challenged daughter the man wasn’t her boyfriend but was actually trafficking her, Greve agreed to help but found out no home existed.

“I had to go back to the mother and say there was nothing I could do to help your daughter,” Greve said. “And I had to let her walk out of the emergency department knowing she would be raped that night so that someone else would make money off of her vulnerability.

“I walked away troubled, there was something inside of me that said this was not okay,” Greve said. “I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t think I would ever be part of a solution, or start an organization to rescue these kids, and I wanted to see homes in America.”

The stories of the children the organization has saved can be founded on their website, with the youngest being 2 years old.

“When I was a little girl I wanted to become an artist, and then after that, I thought kindergarten teacher, and after taking an ROTC class I wanted to become a sniper,” Bender said.

As a varsity student and honor roll student, she was excited to get out of her hometown and go to college.

“But then I got pregnant and I had to make a really tough decision to keep my daughter at 17, give up my dorm room, and go to community college,” Bender said. “No one expected that when I ended up going to college that the boy who dated me for six months promising me and my little girl the life we’d dreamed of was actually a trafficker.”

Over the next six years, Rebecca ended up being sold in Las Vegas to three different traffickers. Throughout these years she had her face broken in five places, was hospitalized for dehydration and over-exhaustion, and was branded twice by two men, having their names tattooed on her back in case she needed to be returned to her “owners” if she went missing.

“In 2007 I grabbed my little girl, packed everything I could fit into her suitcase, and I ran for our lives,” Bender said. “The crazy part is that I didn’t even know that I was being trafficked. You see, victims; we grow up in a safe neighborhood like all of you, imagining stranger danger, watching the same movies as you, seeing the same billboards and advertising as you, and we think  our situation isn’t matching what’s on the screen so I must not be trafficked.”

Bender also stated trafficking is diverse, dynamic, and complex. How it looks in the karaoke bars in Thailand is not how it looks in Boko Haram in Nigeria, the massage parlors in San Francisco, the cantinas in Houston, or the online ads in Denton.

“It looks very different based on the community and culture in which you live,” Bender said. “But one thing is common, traffickers exploit the vulnerable. That’s why what Unlikely Heroes does is not only incredibly important but also unique. Erica and her team understand the variety of diverse cultures, and they understand the complexity of each region they enter. They create strategic ways to infiltrate those arenas and respond and restore the dreams of victims.

Bender created Elevate, an organization meant to empower women and help them restore and live their dreams. Partnering with Unlikely Heroes they mentored over 456 women. Bender and her team of 10 have trained over 90,000 FBI agents, homeland security, undercover cops, victim advocates and medical professionals.

They have worked to change laws in states across the country and they even worked as experts on taking the stand on the highest trafficking cases across America.

Today 10 years later is a wife and a mother to four daughters. She has published four books and is about to graduate from seminary with a masters in Christian thought. Bender’s daughter who was with her throughout everything is now on a track scholarship to UC Berkeley and is the second fastest female in Oregon’s history.

“I say that to show you not all that we’ve done,” Bender said. “But I say that to remind you of the hope and possibility of every boy and girl that walks through the doors of unlikely heroes.”

To donate or read the stories of the saved trafficking victims please visit Unlikelyhereos.com.