Anti-human trafficking activists encourage BYU students to become trauma informed

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Exitus founder Candace Rivera speaks to a BYU audience on how to recognize human trafficking during the “Stop Abuse Summit.” Speakers encouraged BYU students to become trauma informed. (Melanie Andrews)

BYU’s Anti-Human Trafficking Club members organized a “Stop Abuse Summit” on Nov. 17, with a speaker panel featuring Desi Garcia, CEO of Candle in a Dark Room and Candace Rivera, founder of Exitus.

One in 200 people in Utah are being trafficked, Rivera said. Most often, human trafficking affects vulnerable populations such as Indigenous people, the LGBTQ community and any person living in poverty. Human trafficking is a “vast field,” Rivera said, including sexual, physical, organ harvesting, labor and business related abuse. 

“Trafficking happens everywhere and it looks exactly the same. It’s exploitation and manipulation of someone who’s incredibly vulnerable,” Rivera said.

Rivera explained that many people who want to get involved don’t fully understand how to help these vulnerable communities. She told a story about being in Kenya for her organization, Exitus, and seeing layers of paint on the wall of a local church. When she inquired about the paint, she said she was told the paint jobs were done by the summertime youth groups. Rivera explained this particular community was more than 12 miles away from the nearest water source, noting the walk there was often dangerous. 

“If you do not ask these people what they need, you will have the best of intentions and you want to do wonderful things, but you will end up painting a church wall 14 times when really all that effort could have been digging into two, three, four wells and actually really giving these people what they need,” Rivera said. 

She said trafficking victims in Utah need affordable housing and aftercare programs which include therapy and mentoring to deal with substance abuse and mental illness. Rivera said 90% of victims return to trafficking situations. 

“How do we make a difference? You start with one. Provide exit for one,” Rivera said. 

Rivera said anyone wanting to make a difference should listen to the stories of survivors, learn about the housing situation in the local area, become informed on signs of abuse and speak up about human trafficking. 

Garcia has personal experience with abuse that led her to start her podcast, Candle in a Dark Room, which later also became an organization to help advocate for and heal survivors of abuse. 

Garcia said she was sexually and physically abused by her stepfather from the ages of 8 to 15. She said this abuse caused her to develop dissociative identity disorder where she would zone out and her body would relive the abuse. Garcia also said she was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, attempting suicide three times. 

“As I got older I kinda just went through the motions of life. I just basically lived. I was surviving, I wasn’t actually living and enjoying life,” Garcia said. 

It wasn’t until five years ago, Garcia said, that she decided to put in the work to heal from the trauma. It was around this time Garcia decided to share her story and raise awareness through podcasting. 

“I remember literally looking in the mirror one day and saying, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t live this way. I can’t pass this trauma on to my children,’” Garcia said. 

Garcia said her nonprofit foundation, Candle in a Dark Room, offers survivor support groups, individual counseling, group coaching courses, workshops, healing retreats and advocacy assistance for victims facing their abuser in courts. 

Healing from trauma is, unfortunately, a lifelong journey, Garcia said. “But I can still be happy. I can still shine my light for other people. I can still be a good mother, a good wife, a good daughter. I can still do those things, even after the trauma I endured, because that’s not my identity,” she said.

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