Restore A Voice

Nonprofit provides care for human trafficking victims

Larry Megason was on a trip to Haiti to provide clean water solutions when he was approached by five men, four of whom carried machetes, who were offering a 7-year-old girl for sex for $9.

That trip opened his eyes to the growing problem of human trafficking, not only internationally, but also in Central Texas.

Megason, a Cedar Park resident, said he wished he could have done something to help the girl, so in 2011, he founded Restore A Voice in Austin to help human trafficking victims in Central Texas and raise awareness to stop it. In the past two years, he has been building rapport with local law enforcement in the victims services unit, and with other nonprofits with similar missions. With all the focus that the issue has gotten in the media, Megason said it is the cause du jour.

"We know that we have an open window in the human trafficking issue right now that over the next two years or so, everyone is going to be talking about it, but at the end of that two- or three-year period, nobody is going to be talking about it, but it's still going to be happening," he said.

Mission to help

Initially, Restore A Voice had a narrow focus of providing care for females ages 11–18 who have been victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Central Texas. Restore A Voice is often contacted by other law enforcement agencies throughout both the state and the nation to provide help for victims. Megason said the nonprofit has helped 20–25 girls and women in some way in the past two years.

"There's so few care-giving facilities in the country that they can come from anywhere," Megason said.

By using volunteers who are licensed to provide therapy, Megason said Restore A Voice can offer what he calls a continuum of care where girls receive care for their basic needs as well as care that is specific to their individual experiences.

"Even though we're going to have some things that are very similar, we're going to tailor to each one of those girls [as to] what's best for her need for her to experience freedom and dignity that's deserving of any human being, but particularly a young girl," he said.

Looking ahead

Megason has big goals for 2013 that include raising funds to hire a program developer and a child placement administrator so the nonprofit can place girls in homes with families who have been trained to help with therapy. He said the setup will be similar to the foster care system.

In November, Restore A Voice was gifted a home that, when it opens in the spring, will serve as a transitional living space for women ages 18–25 while they go through therapy. Megason said the nonprofit will begin working with law enforcement agencies in January to develop an intake and assessment process for victims.

Because charitable giving has been on the decline in general for nonprofits, Megason said many organizations look to other ways they can generate revenue. At Restore A Voice, another goal for 2013 is opening a retail resale store in the spring to help bring in revenue. Megason said it will be staffed by volunteers, and the community can donate items to the store.

"A volunteer can't come in and visit with a girl because they're not trained and equipped to do that, but they can give something, they can work with you and help in lots of other ways," he said.

A third goal is increasing the nonprofit's continuum of care by opening a day center where girls can come and go for food, clean clothes, a shower and counseling. The center could open by mid-2013.

"One of the reasons we're doing this is that we've discovered over our research that a girl will come and go as many as seven times before she'll come and stay," he said.

To prevent children from becoming victims, Megason said he plans to launch a program called "Liars and Posers" at summer camps and in schools to teach middle and high school students how to know when they can or cannot trust someone.

"We want to educate our young people who liars and posers are so they can begin, when they are in the situation of a new friendship, [to] carefully evaluate, 'Is this going to be a friend of mine or someone I can't trust at all?'" Megason said.

By the end of 2013, Megason said he would like to work with local authorities to open what is known as a john school. Using a court-mandated system, he said offenders arrested for soliciting prostitutes can, instead of going to jail or paying a fine, attend the school to learn the true purpose of a woman, that they are not property and how to respect women.

Supportive volunteers

While some volunteers help organize fundraisers, others such as Jeanne Marie Ellis donate their professional skills and time. Ellis owns her own strategic planning business, and flew to Washington, Oregon, Atlanta and Ohio to research other facilities to learn the best practices.

"It's been inspiring but not easy," she said. "It's heart-wrenching."

Megason said he and his volunteers have all felt the call to dedicate their time to helping victims find dignity and freedom from human trafficking.

"This is the last best thing I will do with my life. Nothing is going to be more important than what I'm doing right now," he said.

Restore A Voice, 512-660-2812, www.restoreavoice.org

By Amy Denney

Managing Editor, Austin metro

Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition as well as covering transportation in the Austin metro. She is now managing editor for the 10 publications in the Central Texas area from Georgetown to New Braunfels. She enjoys spending time with her husband, son and two cats.