The Refuge Ranch, a project spearheaded by Brooke Crowder, plans to offer survivors of sex trafficking a place to call home.
By Phaedra Rogers, Photo by Kristin J Photography
Some people have extraordinary kindness in their voice and an aura of deep warmth in their eyes. You know the ones, the people you can easily settle into a comforting hug with, the people you imagine are incapable of being fierce in any way. Then there are those who, instead of running away from a difficult issue, run straight toward it with the courage of a thousand lions. Brooke Crowder, founder and CEO of The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, is both.
Crowder is on the front lines of an issue that seems unfathomable but is nonetheless very real. The Refuge for DMST is developing The Refuge Ranch, a long-term residential healing facility for minors through the age of 19 who have been rescued from child sex traffickers. Her grit and moxie are matched with a bottomless well of compassion, exactly what is needed to help tackle the nightmare of child sex trafficking.
“I was that kid who’d see a TV commercial about needy children and run to tell my parents that we needed to do something,” Crowder says.
The impetus to help trafficked children came to Crowder in 2004. She was working toward her master’s degree at Asbury Theological Seminary when she saw a video of young girls in India being sold into the sex trade, where they suffered unspeakable horrors. After Crowder viewed the video, her advisor later found her weeping in the chapel.
“He sat down next to me and said, ‘Brooke, look around you. No one else is in here weeping like this. I think this is the calling on your life,’ and I knew from that day forward, I’d be working to help exploited children,” she says.
After she graduated from seminary, Crowder and her family moved to Costa Rica. While there, she learned the country had a dark reputation for child sex trafficking.
“I was working in the poorest barrios, where girls were being trafficked, primarily by gangs,” she says. “I ended up working there for four years, teaching them new skills and tutoring them in school, but mainly just showing up and loving them each day. It was a frustrating situation because we weren’t able to get them out of exploitive situations, but we could demonstrate that their life had value and they were loved.”
Once back in the U.S., Crowder began to see the grim presence of domestic minor sex trafficking in her own backyard. She started digging and found there were no organized efforts to rehabilitate survivors of sex trafficking in the U.S. Even talking to adult survivors left Crowder with little structure to build a support system for girls in need.
“The common theme was there was just no place for them to go,” she says.
Little did Crowder know word of her search efforts was spreading throughout town, and there was about to be a substantial break in the clouds.
“I was trying to convince existing nonprofits to let me develop a program for trafficked youth when, in 2013, I got a call from Alex and Brettne Shootman” she says of two concerned Austin residents who had heard of her efforts through mutual friends. “We met and I shared my vision for building a healing place to help children recover from their trauma of being trafficked for sex when Alex asked me if I’d like 50 acres of land to build this dream, and without hesitation, I said, ‘Yes!’ ”
As fate would have it, the Shootmans were also trying to help support trafficked youth when they heard about Crowder.
“The Shootmans were the catalyst for me to take the step in developing The Refuge for DMST. They’ve been an integral part of our organization and I don’t think we’d have The Refuge if it weren’t for them,” she says.
Crowder also has a dedicated leadership team working with her on The Refuge Ranch project. She’s quick to point out that without them, this task would be extraordinarily heavy.
“We aren’t lone wolves doing this work; we’re a team sharing this mission. If I see someone [falling apart]under the strain, I’ll force time off. But we also take time to laugh together, to have fun and support each other,” she says.
After all, even the staff needs a refuge from The Refuge sometimes. Crowder’s respite is her family, faith and especially her husband, who she lovingly describes as her “safe place.”
Slated to open in late 2017 or early 2018, The Refuge Ranch will be a holistic, healing and restorative residential facility for 48 girls rescued out of sex trafficking. Each girl will have her own customized services, depending on her individual situation, but most importantly, she will be in a safe, serene environment right outside Austin. She will receive education through the University of Texas Charter School System and will have access to a variety of therapies, including equine, pet, music, art and spiritual counseling.
“Our long-term vision is to build other refuges around the state and nation,” Crowder says, “but for right now, we’re starting somewhere.”
To learn more about The Refuge Ranch therefugedmst.org.