At the age of 17, Jennifer was sleeping on the streets of Atlanta.
She'd felt abandoned most of her life, unprotected from her brothers and her mother's boyfriends, who physically and sexually abused her since she was five. And now, kicked out of her house, Jennifer - whose last name is withheld for privacy - was alone and vulnerable. She was soon lured into sex trafficking and was unable to escape for two years. Then she found Covenant House.
"Studies have shown that if a young person ends up on the street, within 48 hours someone is going to approach them with the intention of exploiting them, typically for sexual exploitation," says Allison Ashe, executive director of Covenant House Georgia, one of 22 facilities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Latin America. "But a lot of the time it happens so quickly that they come to us already exploited. Our work is then to help them heal and build a future for themselves."
The Rotary Club of Atlanta is helping young people like Jennifer through a $4.1 million campaign to expand the Covenant House, the city's only crisis center for homeless youth. At the start of the campaign two years ago, the house had just 15 beds and two bathrooms. Another 10 youths slept on floor mats, while others were on a long waiting list.
In June, the shelter moved into its new campus, which includes a 45-bed crisis facility and several outbuildings that make up an independent-living unit. A school building on the property provides space for an art therapy program, a library, a health care clinic, and recreational activities.
"When you walk onto the campus, it doesn't feel like a crisis shelter," says Ashe. "It feels like a college campus where kids can come and heal, learn, grow, and move toward their future."
Clark Dean says his club became interested in the issue after inviting U.S. Attorney Sally Yates as their speaker, who explained that Atlanta is a major hub of child sex trafficking.
"It took the oxygen out of the room," Dean says of Yates' presentation. "When our club hears something like that, we want to act. Fortunately, we are blessed to have members who are in a position to make things happen."
The Atlanta Rotary Club is well connected in the community. Dean, a real estate executive, found and brokered a deal on a property in foreclosure for the new facility. The Atlanta Hawks basketball franchise, whose president is a club member, has contributed tickets and items for the club's silent auction. And Tad Hutcheson, an executive at Delta Airlines, organized more than a hundred volunteers to assist in cleaning up and renovating the new campus during a citywide volunteer service day. Delta also contributed $100,000 to the campaign. Atlanta Rotarians have reached $3.6 million of their fundraising goal.
The campaign will also fund an expansion in counseling services. The center has a general mental health program and employs specialists in sexual abuse, substance abuse, and addictions. An education program aims at putting kids back in high school, if they are still at an appropriate age, or helping older kids earn a GED, as Jennifer is doing. Kids can also learn vocational skills, résumé writing, and interview skills, and are placed in jobs when they are ready through a partnership with certain employers in the city.
In November, Atlanta Rotarians took part in an Executive Sleep Out, an event where business leaders toured the facility, met with kids, and spent the night outside in solidarity with them.
Ashe is overwhelmed by the support Rotary has provided.
"We were able to get the facility up and running for very minor costs because so much was done by volunteers," she says. "Rotary is an incredible example of what happens when a community of leaders comes together around an issue."