They meet online. He calls her beautiful. Her naive and impressionable mind believes him.
He flies her out to meet him. She gets hooked on drugs. He asks her to sleep with his friend. He trapped her.
But can she be freed? Can she be healthy again?
Leah Watson is the founder of G.R.A.C.E. (Girls Rising Above Child Exploitation), a safe house in San Diego for child sex trafficking victims under the age of 18.
Watson has a passion for helping these girls because she was once one of them. Watson had been groomed and lured for trafficking at the age of 18 and 19. At the time, she didn’t know she was in the sex trafficking business because she says she was blinded by everything that was going on.
“I had a lot of guilt from that time in my life because I saw things happening but I was so naïve to it all,” Watson said. “I just turned a blind eye to it. Girls were being pulled right next to me and I was like ‘Oh okay, this is what adult life is like.’”
Watson ended up getting out of the world of sex trafficking and got married to Naval officer Jimmy Watson. They were stationed in Hawaii until a car accident brought them to San Diego.
While her husband was recovering in the Naval hospital with his brain injury, Watson was going through rehab for her back. Suddenly, a question came to her mind.
“What happens to these girls after they’ve been rescued?” Watson said. “As I looked, there’s more than an 85% return rate of these girls back to the streets without rehabilitation.”
Watson came up with the idea to open a safe house to help girls recover physically, mentally, spiritually and financially from trafficking. She had the idea but not the means to do it.
Watson then joined a lifegroup at Newbreak Church in Ocean Beach. Pastor Carter Moss led this group which is specifically designed for people that are new to the church or to Christianity. One of the ice breaker questions was how the members of the lifegroup would change the world if they had unlimited funds and unlimited time.
“I always say you should really pay attention to that answer because maybe that’s something that God really planted in you,” Moss said. “Even if it feels too hard to do anything about it, pay attention. Maybe there’s something God will do.”
Watson went back to her hotel, started writing GRACE in all capital letters and came up with Girls Rising Above Child Exploitation. Watson felt this message was from God to let these girls know that this love and grace of God is available to them.
“If there is one concept that these girls can understand, it’s grace,” Watson said. “Because everything is a transaction for them. They can’t get anything without giving something.”
Watson decided to take a non-profit course online over Christmas break and she realized to start a non-profit, there has to be verification that there is a need. Watson started to do some research and she reached out to Saved in America, an organization in San Diego made up of 18 special warfare operatives who perform recoveries of sex trafficking victims.
“I got a call immediately,” Watson said. “There is such a need for this. We don’t even have a safe house in San Diego county for girls under the age of 18.”
Watson and her husband reached out to the church for support. They created an art show to sell all of the pieces that Watson’s husband created during his art therapy sessions after getting out of the military. They also got the word out through the church’s social media. Moss explained how this house was reaching both the people of the church and also people who may not even be religious at all.
“There’s the impact of the house itself, and then there’s the impact of getting to share that story and I love having stories to share,” Moss said.
After they raised the money, Watson went and bought a house on a large tract of land so they can expand in the future. The idea quickly had turned into a reality.
“I just feel like it’s one of those calls that everyone can get behind,” Moss said. “Even though it’s super close to God’s heart, I believe that it also draws in people who aren’t there yet spiritually. I just love that angle of it.”