SARASOTA -- Chloe Vega stood up in front of about 300 people at the Sarasota Yacht Club, a building full of bright sunshine with windows that look over the Sarasota Bay, and told a dark story that felt like part of another world.
Vega grew up with her mother, a woman who suffered abuse at the hands of human traffickers all her life. Vega was introduced to the life at a young age, and into her teenage years would get high with her mother to deal with the pain.
"One day, one of my mother's Johns came over when she wasn't home, and he said, 'Well, I guess I'll just have to use your time,'" Vega recalled, her voice breaking. "He beat and raped me, and then he left. I was 13."
Vega is one of seven survivors of the world of human trafficking on the staff of Selah Freedom, an organization that helps victims rebuild their lives. Selah has a residential rehabilitation home for survivors in East Manatee that expanded this year so it could host four more women at a time. Once all renovations are finished, the house will be able to house 16 women at once.
Selah hosted the third annual fashion show fund-raiser at the Sarasota Yacht Club on Monday afternoon, with proceeds to benefit the victims.
"Because it's such a dark topic, and if you just say, 'Hey, do you want to come to a talk on sex trafficking?' Most people would say, 'No, pass,'" said Elizabeth Fisher, CEO of Selah Freedom. "So we brand it in a way that is beautiful, and appeals to the women who can help make a difference."
Just to meet present operating costs, Fisher said, Selah needs to raise about $1.5 million per year. She expected proceeds from the fashion show would generate between $50,000 and $90,000, doing a lot to "plant the seed" in community members' minds.
Another way Selah is looking to plant the seed is through a web television series directed by Dylan McDermott, a Golden Globe winning actor and director. McDermott will work with Ringling College film students to shoot and film the web series in Sarasota, which will focus on a young girl trying to navigate out in the world by herself.
Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College, said the series will not directly focus on human trafficking, but rather on the perils of being a young woman out in the world on her own and becoming empowered. The first season will have seven episodes, and creators will evaluate to see if there is interest in more. It will start filming in Sarasota in late spring and early summer.
"It gives great experience to our students, and it means an economic boost to the area," Thompson said. "We'll start casting calls in spring."
McDermott said in a prepared video that he hoped the series would draw attention to the struggles of young women, including the victims at Selah.
"There's a lot of dark in the world, but there are also people to lend a helping hand, like Selah Freedom," McDermott said.
Fisher also announced they will officially open a boutique, Selah Vie, at 3510 53rd Ave. W. in Bradenton, on Feb. 10. All proceeds from the shop, which will sell women's clothing, accessories, shoes, unique art and furniture, will benefit Selah. Volunteers and donations to the shop are always welcome, Fisher added.
Ultimately, all that money will go to making sure girls in the area have a shot to be like Vega and live normal, safe and happy lives, Fisher said.
Before she started the organization, Fisher said she assumed human trafficking was something that happened far away, in Asia or elsewhere. Now she realizes that people right in her backyard are being sold in their early teen years and used 15 to 40 times per day for seven years.
"What do you think they look like after that?" Fisher asked. "Look at the (Tamiami) Trail. People see prostitutes, and you know, there's not a single one of them that that's not their story."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby