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Help for sex-trafficked kids

By this time next year, Boulder City will be home to something very unique but also very needed.

Those who have driven past St. Jude’s Ranch for Children have undoubtedly seen construction going on but may have wondered what was being built.

St. Jude’s broke ground on its 10-acre Healing Center campus in October 2022. According to provided information, a series of individual therapeutic, one-story homes will mimic a neighborhood setting, with walking paths and extensive landscaping designed to foster a sense of safety. Therapy offices and outside areas will encourage transformation through connection to nature. At the same time, additional plans call for a multi-purpose building to include an on-site school, meeting space, library, computer lab, and a yoga and meditation room.

Construction is expected to be completed by August 2024.

Last week Dr. Christina Vela, CEO of St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, said when she was brought aboard in 2017, she had just come from working with the state and was the coordinator of the Coalition to Prevent the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. This 33-member coalition had representatives from across Nevada to tackle this long-standing problem.

“My role as coordinator was to start researching what a model protocol would look like in Nevada to prevent child trafficking from ever happening; to aid the victims of sex trafficking; and how to hold the perpetrators of this crime to justice,” she said.

At the time, she and other members of the coalition were frustrated because there were only a handful of services in the state to help the children of this crime. And, none of those services offered long-term residential care.

“When I came to St. Jude’s, on day one I was talking to our board chairman about this issue,” she said, noting that St. Jude’s has been working with children of trauma for 57 years, thus she felt it would be an ideal location for what would become the Healing Center.

“We knew we wanted to create something specific for this population,” Vela said. “While we have the history and proven outcomes, we also have a precious resource called land, unlike many other charities. Where the Healing Center will be located, it was just undeveloped dirt.”

The fact this concept is becoming reality, Vela said, is a bit surreal. While they turned the first shovels of dirt a year ago, it was just recently that it sunk in for her.

“About a week ago I came to campus after being out of town for a week and we were vertical,” she said. “There were concrete slabs as well as the framing of the school. I got out of my car and just stood there in awe of what is possible. I’m so grateful that we’re making this happen. It’s incredible.”

The Healing Center will feature six homes, three of which will have four bedrooms and the other three with six bedrooms. The smaller homes will be for the new arrivals as they later progress to the larger homes. At capacity, 62 children — most of whom will be court-appointed or referred — could be housed at any given time. In order to assist with these children, specialists trained to work with victims of sex trafficking will be hired.

Beyond the homes will be an on-site school in partnership with the Clark County School District, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, based on Vela’s research. The school will have a variety of offerings for children as they eventually prepare to graduate from high school. The school will include a community garden, a tortoise habitat and a lot of outdoor activities.

Vela said she is very appreciative of this partnership with the school district.

“We believe the premise that healing begins from the inside out,” she said. “In order for young people to heal from some of the most horrific trauma, it’s really about creating an opportunity for them to nurture these other things, have compassion while reconnecting mind and body.”

St. Jude’s has had a model of caring for children in a foster home setting for more than half a century. That model will carry over for the Healing Center but with additions.

“There isn’t exactly one model in the country of what we’re trying to emulate,” Vela said. “We’re going to borrow from where it’s working well. We’re going to create based on cutting-edge research.”

Once they are able to prove that this model works, Vela said the plan is to offer it to other organizations across the country.

This project comes with a hefty price tag, nearly $25 million. But by no means is St. Jude’s footing the entire bill. Through a variety of partnerships and donations both big and small, Vela said it is truly a group effort. To date they have raised more than $16 million. Some of those donations have included $5 million from CCSD, $4 million from Clark County, multiple casino partners include Caesars and MGM, a $2 million grant from the Engelstad Foundation and $500,000 from both the Nevada Elks and Nevada Women’s Philanthropy.

“We are so grateful for the investment these organizations have made,” she said.

Vela said one donation that truly stood out was $1,000 from a Henderson couple who said that they had only daughters, who were now grown. They were thankful that none of them had to deal with the horrific trauma of sex trafficking and that while they don’t have much money, they wanted to help support the project.

“That meant as much to me as did the big checks,” she said. “I love the number of people who have contributed at all levels. It’s been incredible.”

This summer, the movie “Sound of Freedom” did very well at the box office, shedding a light on the issue of sex trafficking. But as Vela pointed out, this is not a new issue but rather one that has gone on for years. While she liked the movie and appreciates the spotlight it put on international sex trafficking, she doesn’t want people to think it doesn’t happen domestically.

“The children we’ll be serving at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, they’re not ones who have been kidnapped, put into containers and shipped across the ocean,” she said. “The kids we’re serving, quite literally, are Las Vegas residents. They’re kids who have fallen prey to the grooming process.”

Vela went on to say, “The real issue is, for every victim, the problem is there’s a buyer. There’s someone buying that child for sex. If we really want to be bold, we have to decide how to end the demand. This is a supply and demand issue. So, if there is no more demand, there are no more children being sold for sex. The real question begs, who’s purchasing these children?”

When the Healing Center opens its doors, Vela said there will be profound satisfaction, knowing that all the blood, sweat and tears put into this project, which some doubted, was worth it.

“When we take young people who are victims and we empower them to be survivors and then we support them to be thriving members of society, the truth is, we all win,” she said.

For more information, or to donate, visit https://www.healingcenter-stjudesranch.org.

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