When Lisa Smith volunteered with the Give-Mentor-Love Foundation to mentor and support girls in foster care, at risk of homelessness or victims of human sex trafficking, she knew teaching basic life skills like cooking and sewing might be a challenge.
Some of the girls were getting older, nearing the age when they would no longer qualify for foster care or other governmental assistance, so time was of the essence.
During one of the first home-skill courses, she met a 15-year-old who had never seen a can opener.
“That was a real eyeopener for me,” said Smith, the Give-Mentor-Love director of programs and volunteers. “It was one of the most impactful moments … how could someone have never seen a can opener? It really gave me a whole new perspective on who we were working with and how to meet the girls where they are, developmentally.”
Formed in 2019, Give-Mentor-Love has honed a tailored, individual approach to mentor and support L.A. County youths and young adults in-crises in foster group homes or homeless, focusing on programs that teach life and social skills, financial and banking sense, healthy relationship building and lifelong career goals.
Now, the nonprofit is kicking off a capital campaign to build a sustainable housing solution for young adults in transition, called The Village.
In partnership with the L.A. County Specialized Bureau for Commercial Sexual Exploited Children (CSEC), ZOE Los Angeles and Learning Works Charter School in Pasadena, the GML Foundation works to reach at-risk youth and, in particular, children who have been rescued from commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
GML Founder and board chair Donna Pierson has worked for years in the Pasadena area to help this “sidelined” group of young people, who often feel ostracized from conventional living after being sexually exploited and physically and psychologically abused at such a young age. The average age of children pulled into sex trafficking is 12-14 years old, though Pierson knows of much younger victims, including one who was just 2.
She has become a fierce champion on the front lines of finding and providing resources for these survivors through her nonprofit, not only helping them heal, but offering tangible resources to help keep them from returning to an abuser or pimp.
“Though attention has increased to the sex traffic industry worldwide, people still do not realize this is happening in your neighborhood, right here in Pasadena, right up and down Colorado Boulevard in Old Town and on the corners of Rosemead,” she said. “Nobody wants to believe this is happening in their neighborhood, but it is. This is a very hotly sex trafficked area.”
Adding to the problem is pop culture glamorization of pimping in the music industry and media, Pierson noted, along with the proliferation of child pornography.
Once a child’s innocence has been robbed, it’s a complex process to bring them back into everyday life, she added. A pimp will threaten to kill them or their family or beat them into submission and turn them into drug addicts.
“After they’ve been sex trafficked for years, raped for years, they just don’t fit into a normal education anymore. They don’t fit in the real world anymore or into a normal life,” Pierson continued. “They don’t have any living or social skills. They don’t know how to make a bed, how to wash a dish, cook a meal, go grocery shopping, fill out an application.
“And the fact that they’re still severely traumatized and demoralized, they have no trust because everybody they encountered in all those years were people that abused them and used them for financial gain.”
After observing many of the girls getting moved from one group home to another, eventually aging out of the system and its safety nets, Pierson’s GML Foundation unveiled an ambitious plan to help develop CSEC Transitional Aged Youth housing in L.A. County for those 18-21 years old. The transitional housing would provide a safe place for those who have aged out of the traditional foster care system yet continue to need additional support. The young adults are not ready to live independently and need wraparound services to heal and stay on the right path for success.
Pierson’s dream for a tiny village is taking form. Quipping “it takes a village to build a village,” she envisions a parcel of land with a community building with a few bedrooms for intensive care treatment, surrounded by a landscaped village of tiny homes, filled with meandering pathways and garden beds. A place where victims rescued from the sex trade and exploitation, and in-crisis young adults, can live safely and independently — but with support and therapies — while they finish a high school or associate degree, or a trade school diploma, and build life skills.
The village would keep the young women on the path to recovery instead of getting emancipated at age 18 and sent off on their own, only to fall back into the hands of an abuser, a cycle that Pierson and others have witnessed time and time again.
“It’s a vicious cycle for these kids. Once they are on their own and vulnerable, their pimps find them and then there’s no way out,” Pierson said.
Pierson and L.A. County CSEC Program Administrator Adela Estrada know from experience what is at stake: They have seen sex trafficking victims die firsthand.
Pierson knew a 16-year-old girl with a baby who was murdered. Another girl, she winced, tried to run away from her pimp until he chased her down in his car, running over her multiple times.
Estrada recalled how the GML Foundation paid for the burial of one victim, providing dignity and closure for those who knew her and had tried to help.
“Even in our saddest moments, Give-Mentor-Love has been there for us and these children. We call them our safety net,” Estrada said. “Working in child welfare, the funding doesn’t happen quickly. So much of our work is crisis oriented, so that immediate money is critical and means whether victims will go hungry or not, have shelter or not, be safe or not.”
Having a tiny village for transitional age youth could be life-changing for many of these youth, Estrada said.
“Some of these kids will need, cognitively and developmentally, more time to be successful, to learn the necessary skills. Having a village will be a real game-changer for them,” she added. “Donna is our biggest champion by far in spreading awareness about this and getting supporters within the community; she fights for our kids and our staff. She shows up and does the work with the kids — she really gets to know them. She is the real deal and is on a mission.”
GML and Pierson’s mission, though not easy, has garnered success stories that are celebrated and held dearly as examples of what could be a reality for many more.
One young woman (who spoke with The Outlook on the condition of anonymity to protect her identity) told her story of recovery as a journey that never would have happened without GML.
Though she had stopped attending school at age 13, GML provided tutoring, mentoring and support. They helped her dare to dream about a career, something she could be proud of.
“I wanted something good for myself… after everything I went through, I felt like I deserved it. [Donna] helped me to see that. I woke up one day and said I’ve got to change this around.”
She set her sights on the military, but still needed a high school diploma to be a good candidate.
GML provided the support, and she studied night and day until passing the exams she needed. She was accepted, and is thrilled to be shipping off soon to basic training.
“I look back now and wonder what would’ve happened to me without all these people supporting me?” she said. “Meeting Donna really changed my life. I was able to put things in perspective and think about my future in a way I never had, with a great support system behind me.”
Pierson brimmed with pride speaking to the young woman as a mother would, excitedly going over the details for her upcoming military post.
Successes like these are what she is fighting for, one young child at a time. With a tiny village — or a retreat — as she calls it, GML can provide a transformative living and learning community.
“These are children that have been robbed of their innocence. They are victims that deserve a new chance at life,” Pierson said. “People don’t understand how deeply damaged and traumatized these children are and that it’s going to take a lot of effort, love, support and education. But we need the entire community’s help to get behind them. It really does take a village. There are so many ways to help.”
To learn more about the Give-Mentor-Love capital campaign for the tiny village and its Sept. 28 annual fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, contact DonnaPierson@givementorlove.org. For volunteer or donation queries, visit givementorlove.org.
First published in the Sept. 14 issue of the San Marino Tribune