Thumping music, balloons, and young women in boas and fairy wings greeted a line of schoolgirls as they filed into the cafeteria.
The mood was festive at Father Keith B. Kenny K-8 School in Oak Park, but the mission was serious: empower Sacramento girls and keep them out of the clutches of sex traffickers.
It was the year’s first meeting at the school for the Shine Program, which was launched three years ago by the nonprofit City of Refuge.
As California faces some of the highest numbers of sex trafficking victims in the country, the high-energy program attempts to empower girls before they become vulnerable. It teaches girls self-worth and focuses on building inner strength.
Students and mentors meet weekly to discuss healthy relationships, safety, leadership and sexual harassment. The six-week program is now offered at nine district primary and secondary schools, said Stacey Ault, youth development director at Sacramento City Unified School District.
“It’s an opportunity to interact with a mentor, talk about what it means to be a girl, access leadership opportunities and social-emotional learning,” Ault said.
The district pays the City of Refuge $50,000 a year for the program, she said.
Seventh-grader Le’Ayshia Williams took part last year and signed up again this year. “People used to tell me I was ugly and I would listen to them,” she said. “The program tells me I’m beautiful the way I am.”
City of Refuge staff and volunteers encourage participants in Shine to consider the other girls in the program to be their sisters and to support one another.
At Father Keith B. Kenny School on a recent school day, participants danced, strutted down a makeshift catwalk in dresses they designed from trash bags, listened to speakers tell them that they matter and recited mantras of empowerment.
“I shine. You shine. We shine,” chanted the group of fifth- through eighth-grade students at the direction of Heidi Lush from the City of Refuge.
Eighth-grader Verenice Chavez said that since she started attending Shine three years ago she has become more open to trying new things and makes an effort to reach out to other girls who might need to talk.
“It helps a lot of people,” she said. “They make you feel worth it and make you feel at home.”
The California Attorney General’s Office says California had 1,331 cases of human trafficking in 2016, among the highest in the country. Of those cases, 1,096 involved sex trafficking.
Sacramento City Unified recently made headlines when Kennedy High School soccer coach Daniel Seagraves, 34, was arrested on Christmas on suspicion of selling a teenager for sex. There was no indication the 17-year-old girl was a student in the district, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Seagraves is being held on $2 million bail and no longer is allowed to work with students, according to district officials.
Sacramento City Unified’s efforts to fight sex trafficking began in earnest in 2009 after an Oakridge Elementary School student was recovered from a motel in Oakland, said board President Jessie Ryan.
Ryan said the average girl is trafficked at age 11 or 12.
Now the district has several programs geared toward fighting human trafficking, including training more than 500 teachers and principals to look for risk factors. It also has a street team, which trains students to reach out and empower other youths, according to Ryan.
“It is amazing to see young women we worked with blossom,” Ryan said. “To have the girls go through the program and say, not only do we feel supported but that our value as young women is validated.”