“Aveny – look at this,” Brand stepped through the door, still dressed in his fireman’s work blues. Aveny glanced up from her computer as he thrust a newspaper into her hands.
“What am I looking at?” she asked.
“Here,” Brand pointed at a black and white image. “Does that girl look familiar?”
Aveny gazed at the photo of a young woman, maybe only 17, and shook her head. “Not really, why?”
“Read it,” Brand urged.
Aveny returned her attention to the page and read:
Jessica Smith is on a mission. Forced into the sex trade as a teen, this remarkable young woman escaped. Now she’s on a mission to help others do the same.
“I think people need to realize that anyone can be preyed upon,” Smith said. “It’s up to all of us to keep our most vulnerable community members safe.”
Smith is no stranger to hardship. Born to a mother who struggled with addiction, she landed in foster care at an early age. After being bumped back and forth between the system and her mother’s unstable home, Smith finally ran away at age 12.
She survived by stealing food and sneaking into abandoned buildings at night. Eventually, she connected with a group of other homeless youth and fell under the protection of an older individual she thought she could trust.
“One night, I woke up to these two big guys grabbing me,” Smith remembers. “I tried to fight but then ‘John’ was there and he said not to. I trusted him. Then the guys gave him money, hauled me out the door and shoved me into the trunk of a car. I tried to fight again, but one of the men punched me and I passed out.”
When asked how she eventually fought her way out, Smith said, “Actually, I didn’t keep fighting. I gave up. I was scared and hurt and alone, and I gave up. I was exhausted and dizzy from being stuck in the trunk for so long. My face was all bloody and I was terrified. Eventually, they pulled me out. It was pitch black outside. One guy had a knife and they told me if I made any noise, they’d slit my throat. I was so scared, I thought I might pass out. My legs were so cramped, I could barely walk. It hurt but I was too scared not to do what they said. They took me out on a dock and pushed me into a boat.”
Here, Smith made her daring escape. She doesn’t remember exactly how but believes she had help that fateful night. “Something hit the side of the boat,” she recalls. “And then I was in the water. I could still hear the men and I was terrified. Then I was at the edge of another dock. I was shaking so hard with the cold, I could barely move but something pushed me up and out of the water. And then I just ran, as fast as I could. I ran down the dock and up the hill and there was this road there and a car saw me and stopped to help – this wonderful woman. She got me inside the car and turned the heater up full blast. I was so scared but she told me I was going to be ok.”
The woman wanted to take Smith to the police, but Smith refused to go. “I told her I’d run if she tried,” Smith said. “I don’t trust systems.”
So the woman took her home and eventually connected her with Maggie Kennedy, a Washington woman who has dedicated her life to fighting the local sex trade epidemic.
Smith and Kennedy formed an instant connection. They are now partnering to make a difference, starting by sharing Smith’s amazing story. “I may have been homeless when this happened,” Smith said, “but it can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime – and it does. People need to know so we can fight back and save those who need our help.”
When asked about the help she received, Smith said, “I’m so grateful for the women who helped me, and whatever it was that helped me escape. I don’t know if it was an angel or what, but something saved me that night. I know it. Now I want to pass on the favor.”
Aveny stared up at Brand, mouth agape.
“That’s her, isn’t it?” he asked.
Tears brimmed in Aveny’s eyes as she whispered, “I think so.” Her voice broke as tears spilled down her cheeks.
“I’m really glad you’re both ok,” he said. “And I understand why you did it. You had to.”