LEZLIE STERLING / Bee file, 2008

Jenny Williamson, right, shown with Sacramento Police Sgt. (now Lt.) Pam Seyffert in 2008, has plans to expand Courage House to house 60 girls.

Q&A: Nonprofit Courage House helps victims of sex trade

Published: Monday, Jan. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 - 11:04 am

Jenny Williamson is founder of Courage House, a nonprofit home for young women who are victims of the sex trade. The Rocklin businesswoman raised more than $1 million to open safe houses in the Sacramento area and in Tanzania, East Africa. The Northern California home opened in August, and six young women now live there.

What was the genesis of Courage House?

"It broke my heart to read about children being sold for sex in Cambodia and Africa. Then I found out it was happening here, in my own backyard, and I got really angry. I decided to build a home for these girls, rescue them and help them with their trauma. I partnered with the FBI and other law enforcement who deal with the problem every day, and this community got together and we started raising money."

What does Courage House offer that foster homes cannot?

"Foster families are not trained in dealing with the types of abuse that these kids have endured. They need a very high level of care, or they run. At Courage House, they get individual counseling, we help them develop a life plan, put them on an educational path, and we love them up. We help them meet their goals and achieve their dreams and desires."

Courage House is affiliated with your Christian nonprofit group, Courage To Be You. Are these young women required to practice Christianity?

"Absolutely not. It's all voluntary. Sunday morning, you can go to church or you can ride a horse. Shockingly enough, they usually go to church!"

How are girls referred to Courage House?

"They come to us through Child Protective Services and the Probation Department. We get referrals from all over the state and even outside of California. We are a licensed group home with staff and administrators."

How many girls can you accommodate?

"Our house is full right now, but we are planning to build out and eventually house 60 girls in 10 cottages. We have all kinds of people volunteering to help, including an architectural firm that has donated all of its services."

What types of abuses have the girls suffered?

"All of them have had some kind of interaction with CPS. Some have been sexually abused since childhood, and eventually commercially exploited. They have seen violence and death and have been used as sex slaves. Most people find it hard to believe that these kinds of things can happen in our community, but they do."

How long can girls stay at Courage House?

"The beautiful thing is that they can stay until they are 22 years old. That's so exciting for us because if they want to go to college, they can stay here and we can support them through their college years."

What's the first thing that happens when they walk through your doors?

"We give them a 'welcome home' party. Most of these girls have not celebrated a birthday or holiday in years. No one has ever celebrated them. We buy them clothes, give them a camera to record their experiences, give them a memory book. We make them feel they belong to a family."

What is a typical day like for the girls?

"They have schedules for the first time in a long time. They get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to school, work on their mental health, have some free time before dinner and some free time at night. They can listen to music, go to Bible study, watch a movie, whatever they like. We also do fun outings to places like Lake Tahoe."

Is running Courage House emotionally draining for you?

"Oh, yes. This is the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. Our community, our churches, our therapists, no one is properly prepared or trained to love these kids. It is very hard work. Their needs are huge. But I'm seeing lives being changed, and that makes it all worth it. I now believe I am living out the reason I am on this planet."

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Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert

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