MANATEE -- For Gabbie, a 21-year-old survivor of human trafficking, graduation from Selah Freedom on Monday means a new life.
Gabbie was the first of what is now a group of six girls to join Selah Freedom's residential program, where human trafficking survivors can live full time for at least a year, surrounded by constant support in the form of classes, therapists and advisers.
Gabbie, whose real name cannot be used to protect her safety, had been abused throughout her life. But she still managed to graduate from high school with honors several years ago and was determined to go to college.
She moved in with a girlfriend and a group of men, who told the girls they could stay there rent-free while attending school. But the men pushed both girls into working for a strip club, and ultimately into a life of prostitution.
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After five years of exploitation, Gabbie sought help. That led her to Selah Freedom, a nonprofit dedicated to helping victims of human trafficking.
"It was funny, because I Googled it, and I had never heard of Selah, and their number just popped up. No website, no nothing, just a number," Gabbie said. "We Googled prostitution plus help, and the number just popped up."
Selah's five-acre house is located in East Manatee and will have a maximum of 16 occupants when all renovations are finished.
Now, a year later, Gabbie is graduating from the program and will be living independently. She's moving into a residence near a college where she's taking classes, with Selah Freedom subsidizing the rent and providing her with furniture.
"I'm still going to have the safety net of calling my therapist once a week, and saying, 'Hey, I need help, I
don't know how to do this,' or whatever it is," Gabbie said. "Having the resources and not being completely alone is good. So I feel like I'm ready, it's just going to be an adjustment."
Both Gabbie and Elizabeth Fisher, co-founder and CEO of Selah Freedom, likened the relationship between Selah and survivors to relationships between children and parents. They're sending a daughter off to college, Fisher said, but they'll still be there for her.
"I could see Gabbie -- or any of these girls -- on a platform anywhere, winning 'woman of the year,'" Fisher said. "They're leaders, they're world-changers."
There are times, Gabbie said, that the program was difficult. The girls are given curfews, bedtimes, told when to wake up and typically have an entirely scheduled day. But Gabbie knows it changed her from who she was when she first came to Selah.
"I feel like I've hit puberty over again. It's a mental puberty," Gabbie said. "I think today I can actually call myself a woman, and I think that's probably the biggest difference."
What helped her the most were therapy sessions, Gabbie said. Selah has sessions called "rapid resolution," where survivors meet with certain therapists once every few weeks, in addition to regular therapy sessions throughout the week.
"When I'm going through something, or I'm reliving some traumatic event, I go there and it's like, release. When I first got here there were so many things I couldn't talk about without crying or getting super emotional and loud. It was just awful," Gabbie said.
"And today, I'm in a place where I can talk about my past and talk about different things that have happened," she said. "And of course they still hurt to think about, but I'm not as emotionally reactive. And it's genuine - I'm not suppressing anything, I've just been able to move past it."
Although Gabbie isn't sure what career she wants to pursue, she's taking general classes in her first year of college, working a part-time job and just got her driver's license last Wednesday. She still needs a car. She and one other survivor will be graduating Monday in a private ceremony.
Fisher describes Gabbie as a leader and role model to the other girls in the house. The other survivors are proud of Gabbie for taking college classes, and everyone was excited when she got her license. It makes the other girls want to stick with the program more, Fisher said.
Gabbie said if she could give any advice to human trafficking victims who are still suffering, she would tell them to always look for help.
"There are so many people who want to help, so many people," Gabbie said. "It's going to be so hard, and so painful, it's going to be a process, you're not going to want to do it, you're going to want to leave, you're going to want to run away, you're going to be scared, you're going to be ridiculous.
"But none of that matters, because you deserve a happy, healthy, fulfilling life," she added emphatically. "So just look for the help and know your worth."
Selah Freedom is funded entirely through donations, and the Pentecost Foundation is currently offering a matching grant of $250,000.
Kate Irby, Herald online reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Follow her on Twitter @kateirby.