Nov 26, 2018
Employee Spotlight—Gina McConnell
Gina knows what it feels like to run away. She did it at age 12 to avoid abuse at home, but like so many youth on the street, she quickly became a target for sex trafficking. After many years “in the life,” she spent time in prison where she befriended a person who said to her when she was released, “I need you to go out there and be our voice.” This was a pivotal moment for Gina and from that point on, she was committed to helping youth who have experienced similar trauma as she did. Today she works in the Cowlitz County Youth Services Program in Washington as a case manager for sexually-exploited youth. We talked to Gina to find out how her experiences has prepared her for this role.
What role do you play as a case manager for Sexually-Exploited Youth?
I am part of a team dedicated to providing outreach, education and engagement for youth ages 12-24 who are victims of sexual exploitation or who may be at risk. We provide one-on-one support to potential victims to get their basic needs met and to connect them with appropriate resources. It often takes time for youth to develop enough trust to confide with us about being sex-trafficked. We have to build up a relationship until they feel safe. To find these youth, we do outreach to schools, on the street and community organizations. We speak to an average of 100 youth a week. Working as mobile outreach workers, we go to homeless camps where we are well known and trusted. Adults in the camp will often take us to youth who needs help. It could take many months before a youth is ready to transition out of the life. Getting a youth to talk is a huge feat. We listen to them, bring them food, water, clothing, connect them to appropriate services, accompany them to the hospitals and, when they are ready, help them get out of their situations.
In addition to developing one-on-one relationships with youth, our team spends a considerable amount of time educating teachers, community groups and health professionals about how to identify sexually-exploited youth. We give presentations in Longview and Kelso high schools speaking in classrooms and setting up stationary outreach in cafeterias where some youth may tell me they know or have seen someone who shows signs of sex trafficking. Many of the teachers also recognize the physical signs of a youth who may be at risk or is being sex-trafficked and they will contact us.
How has your life experiences helped you in your work?
Because I was a runaway kid and a sex-traffick survivor, youth tend to connect with me quickly. When I give a classroom presentation and tell the story about a 12-year old runaway girl who was sex trafficked, the kids gasp when I tell them that girl was me. My personal testimony give me credibility. I am the voice for so many sex-traffick survivors. When they hear my story they can see that there is an alternative path.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
It feels good to help youth who do not see a lot of hope in their life. I am just a bumper guard, helping them get to where they want to be. I believe that the work I do at Janus saves lives and that is what I want to do.