Ten Years of Transformation
May of 2021 marks ten years since Awaken began transforming lives in our community, working to eradicate commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. Since the organizational launch in May of 2011, Awaken has reached more than 700 women and children in the Northern Nevada community, helping them regain their freedom and their dignity. To celebrate, during the month of May, Awaken will be sharing the unique stories from ten courageous survivors.
Awaken has also lifted the veil on commercial sex trade in our state, a rampant but well-hidden problem in our region. Adjusted for population, Nevada’s commercial sex market is by far the largest of any state, with over 5,000 individuals sold for sex on average each month. The problem still exists—but Awaken has brought it into the public eye. On this ten-year anniversary, Awaken is celebrating not only the successes, such as legislative changes, increased police enforcement and a safer community for women and children—but also the personal and unique stories of the survivors who have transformed their lives.
“We feel both the wins and the losses, the hardship and the death. But we also feel that an impact has been made. The women we work with have changed. They feel they belong. And we’ve seen the entire city create change and become safer.” – Melissa Holland, Awaken Co-Founder
Ten Stories of Survival
Every woman who enters the doors at Awaken does so in a different place in her life. Each of them has a unique history and experience that leads them to create a new choice for a different path. These stories do not all have happy or picturesque endings. Some of these women are still struggling, healing and building themselves back up. But on this ten-year anniversary, Awaken invites you to honor and celebrate all of our survivors. As you read these ten stories of survival, we ask you to recognize their strength and celebrate each of them for how far they’ve come to be authentically and fully themselves.
Katerina is proud of herself for the first time ever in her 27 years of life. She recently went back to school and earned her GED and she’s taking college classes in order to become an HVAC technician. It’s also the first time in as long as she can remember that she doesn’t owe anyone anything—not money, not sex and not drugs. In November of 2020, Katerina became the very first graduate of Awaken’s restorative housing program designed to help sex trafficking victims recover and reclaim their lives.
“I am most proud of the fact that I was able to go back to school. I got teased a lot as a child for being overweight and for not having clean clothes. Walking back into a school was a big deal for me.”
Read Katerina’s full story here.
Angela’s childhood was extremely hard. She was surrounded by drug addiction, alcohol abuse and prostitution from a young age. And when she was just 19, she was devastated when she found her mother’s dead body on their living room couch.
“I tried to resuscitate her, but I couldn’t. She was already cold. My mom’s death really rocked me.”
Read Angela’s full story here.
Annie now sells insurance, pays her own rent, and proudly mothers her three resilient daughters who also play sports and get straight A’s. Annie says Awaken helped her finally break her damaging life cycle.
“They didn’t shame me or guilt me or make me feel bad about my life choices. They intervened and were a support system for me. To thank them, I stay on the right path. The best way I can give back is by telling my story.”
Read Annie’s full story here.
Tianna says Awaken saved her from continuing a dangerous lifestyle, and she brings other women into the doors to help them escape too. She hopes one day she will fully heal from her experiences and trauma, but in the meantime, Awaken is her family.
“It’s really something that no one wants to address. Everyone looked down on me before, treated me like dirt. We need to bring awareness to people. That’s where it starts. Prostitution is frowned upon, but it’s also accepted in some ways, and it’s legal here. Think about your daughters, your sisters, your neighbors.”
Read Tianna’s full story here.
Afterwards, she was blamed and shamed by her traffickers. All of these experiences, Erica says, are normal and frequent among women being sexually exploited and sold in Northern Nevada. At age 22, Erica felt worthless and tried to kill herself and ended up in a local hospital.
“I looked out the window and saw a mom at a park playing with her kids. I thought, ‘Why can’t I just be normal like that?’”
Read Erica’s full story here.
Sarah is one of the youngest survivors of Awaken, having been sexually trafficked in Reno starting at age 15. She’s now 17, living with a foster family, and is on track to graduate with a high school diploma in 2022. Sarah says she still feels hopeless most days, like she’s just trying to survive.
“If Awaken wasn’t here, I don’t know what I would do. Where would I be? Ever since the trafficking, it has stuck with me. It effects how I view myself and how other people treat me. You can’t undo what has been done to you.”
Read Sarah’s full story here.
Jessica’s life as a dancer was also dangerous. She remembers other dancers leaving the club with customers and returning with black eyes and other injuries. Some women never came back. She believes the club owners exploited the dancers and tried to get them intoxicated so they could take advantage of them.
“If you gave the manager a cut of what you were making, they would turn a blind eye. Strip club is basically a cover name for a brothel.”
Read Jessica’s full story here.
While most of Bailey’s physical abusers have been men, she says her first introduction to trafficking was when a female friend sold her in order to make the next month’s rent.
“She said ‘we gotta do what we gotta do.’ I was afraid to be homeless and have to sleep outside in the freezing cold. I’ve been trafficked by three women. At first I thought they were my friends and would take care of me. But the female pimps I have had have been more aggressive than the men.”
Read Bailey’s full story here.
“I sacrificed parts of myself that I didn’t want to because I thought I was in a safe environment. It was all very hush-hush in the club. The dancers all say they don’t do it, but I’m pretty sure everyone was involved in this. We had a lot of shame about it and so we didn’t talk about it.”
Amber says after she had children, sex work lost all of the glamour she had created about it in her mind. It became simply a job she felt forced to do in order to provide for her son and daughter. That’s when left the business and decided to get sober and find work that didn’t make her feel so lonely inside.
Read Amber’s full story here.
Mary wishes she had support from an organization like Awaken when she was a child because she thinks her life might have turned out differently. She believes that preventing other girls like her from being trafficked and controlled is possible, but that caring adults need to look out for the warning signs and speak up when something doesn’t seem right.
“Prevention is so important for girls who have been degraded, walked on, stomped on and discarded. These girls are just babies who want love. When someone gives them attention, they are in. I think if someone would have reached out a hand to me and held it, it would have been nice.”
Read Mary’s full story here.
Since Awaken was founded in 2011, it has reached more than 700 women and children in the Northern Nevada community. Awaken’s mission is to increase awareness and education surrounding the issue of commercial sexual exploitation and to provide housing and restoration for its victims.
Thank you to all of the Awaken donors and supporters who have helped us reach this important milestone of ten years!
All names have been changed to protect each participant.