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Street GRACE: Building Partnerships that Save Exploited Kids

Bringing together 80 churches, 50 organizations and more than 2,000 volunteers, member nonprofit Street GRACE leads a multi-pronged assault against the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Atlanta and throughout the state, where hundreds of kids are bought and sold each month.

Street GRACE, a coalition of Christian churches, community partners and volunteers, is dedicated to eradicating the commercial sexual exploitation of children, an issue referred to as CSEC. Through collaborative efforts, Street GRACE unites all its stakeholders in order to mobilize, advocate against, and stop this ongoing Atlanta issue, with a vision to end it throughout the U. S. with similar city-wide programs. In a recent interview with GCN, Street GRACE Executive Director Cheryl DeLuca-Johnson shared insight into the history of the organization, its mobilization efforts and the partnerships necessary to produce lasting results.

Currently, between 250 and 400 young girls, averaging 14 years of age (but as young as 10), are being sexually trafficked in Georgia every month. Street GRACE works diligently to counteract this epidemic through an array of awareness-raising initiatives and advocacy efforts around the city, as well as by mobilizing assets toward organizations with a demonstrated passion for battling CSEC through advocacy, aftercare and mentoring. Street GRACE also acts as the collective voice for individuals sympathetic to the cause, connecting them with vital news, like updates on the GBI’s big push against sex trafficking. Through a unique platform of interactive advocacy, the organization has grown its network to include 80 churches, 50 community partners and 2,000 volunteers.

Currently, between 250 and 400 young girls, averaging 14 years of age (but as young as 10), are being sexually trafficked in Georgia every month. 

History: Galvanizing a Community

CSEC emerged as a local issue in 2000, said DeLuca-Johnson, after Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Nina Hickson presided over her one thousandth case of childhood exploitation and realized that the issue was nothing short of an epidemic. She brought the issue to then-mayor Shirley Franklin, and in 2005 a report was commissioned to expose the extent of CSEC in Atlanta. The report, “Hidden in Plain View,” catalyzed awareness of the problem in the Atlanta community while identifying several specific places where children were being prostituted.

One of those locations got the attention of Dr. Scott Weimer, Senior Pastor of North Avenue Presbyterian Church: “It was precisely on the corner of Peachtree Street and North Avenue—the very spot where his church sits,” reported DeLuca-Johnson, who first joined the effort in 2008. In response, Dr. Weimer joined with Rev. Dr. James Milner, Senior Pastor of Chapel of Christian Love Baptist Church and chairperson of the Mayor’s Faith Based Roundtable, to host a series of summits in March 2007 and January 2008 that put the issue in front of Atlanta’s at-large faith-based community. Two things became evident, said DeLuca-Johnson: “One was the fact that CSEC needed to be addressed in our community. The second was the fact that nonprofits work around the edges of the issue - that, because they are under-sourced, they are not able to work together and attack the heart of the problem.”

It was clear that the faith-based community had the resources to assist those nonprofits and, further, that church leaders and their congregations wanted to “get out of the pews and into the community.” With a mission in mind, eight churches collaborated over six months with a consultant to develop strategic, effective partnerships with public, private and nonprofit organizations to help bring an end to CSEC. The result was Street GRACE, which received its 501(c) status in 2009.

Programs and Partnerships

“We do not do it alone,” said DeLuca-Johnson, crediting Street GRACE’s success to the network of partners—including other members like Covenant House, City of Refuge, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Kidz 2 Leaders and the Salvation Army - working toward shared goals of “awareness, empowerment, engagement and social change.” Together, they’ve developed a comprehensive mobilization toolkit called Out of the Shadows, a resource for churches, nonprofits, community leaders and businesses to help effectively organize against CSEC. Through their Speaker’s Bureau, organizations can request an in-person talk from a Street GRACE representative covering the issues surrounding CSEC, the work that Street GRACE makes possible and the ways other organizations can get involved. Street GRACE also gives its volunteers the chance to serve as advocates, by offering extensive training in issues and outreach strategies. “We like to tell people about the issue, but we also like to tell them how they can be a part of the change,” said DeLuca-Johnson. Through this effort, volunteers are empowered to hold awareness events, conduct presentations and contact legislators.

With a mission in mind, eight churches collaborated over six months with a consultant to develop strategic, effective partnerships with public, private and nonprofit organizations to help bring an end to CSEC.

Street GRACE and its partners are committed to lobbying and advocacy at every level of government. Their annual “Lobby Day,” next scheduled for Feb. 7, 2013, is especially important to the advocacy strategy; in 2011, Street GRACE joined with nonprofits Wellspring Living and A Future Not A Past, as well as various community alliances, to help push House Bill 200, which increased penalties for child traffickers and provided greater protection for victims, to unanimous approval. Street GRACE also hosted a conversation on CSEC with the Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, local Police Departments and the Mayor.

“Laws should reflect our values, and we value children,” DeLuca-Johnson said; as such, Street GRACE supports any legislature dedicated to their well-being.

DeLuca-Johnson said Street GRACE programs are designed to help participating individuals and organizations “find their way” to help eliminate CSEC. The “Run for a Reason” campaign gives volunteers the chance to participate in a race of their choice while sponsoring Street GRACE; the next event is the Phoenix Community 5K on November 17. A partnership with the Department of Education to provide in-depth information for teachers helps bolster awareness and responsiveness.

Their most influential awareness initiative to date, however, is the “Stop the Candy Shop” campaign, based on a 30 minute film, “The Candy Shop,” that tells the story of modern-day child exploitation through an updated fairytale. DeLuca-Johnson said the film “stays with you” long after viewing it. “Most of the time we brace ourselves emotionally, but the film is so well crafted, it’s like a sneak attack,” she said, while noting that it’s an appropriate introduction to the issue for any age viewer—and thus a perfect part of Street GRACE’s latest mobilization toolkit.

Connecting with the Cause

As a licensed therapist, DeLuca-Johnson has a background in women’s issues, especially relating to women and addiction. Having held several positions at Metro Atlanta Recovery Residences, and served on several advisory boards regarding drug and alcohol abuse issues, DeLuca-Johnson was commissioned to conduct sustainability research in Sri Lanka for World Hope International. After reporting back some “hard truths” about the exploitation of Sri Lankan women, DeLuca-Johnson was approached by Norwood Davis, Board Chair and CFO at Lawrenceville’s 12Stone Church, who was looking for an Executive Director for Street GRACE. DeLuca-Johnson said she would keep her ears open, declining the job offer three times before acquiescing in August 2008.

“Although collaboration is sometimes the hardest part, partnerships are what make social change.”
– Cheryl DeLuca-Johnson, Executive Director

“It has been a difficult, but remarkable journey,” she said. “Although collaboration is sometimes the hardest part, partnerships are what make social change. Through our common goal, ending CSEC, we are able to put aside our differences and work together for one objective.”

Street GRACE prides itself in knowing that it cannot handle this vast problem on its own. Working with a number of players, each success is amplified by the collective efforts of an organized team. “The longer we whisper, the longer the other side wins,” said DeLuca-Johnson, promising that Street GRACE will continue to advocate, in a clear and insistent collective voice, for the exploited children of Georgia.

Breauna Hagan is the Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits. 

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