- Associated Press - Sunday, November 27, 2016

FORT THOMPSON, S.D. (AP) - Lisa Heth’s small prayer on a drive to a motel in central South Dakota spiraled into an extended-stay human trafficking survivor shelter.

Heth, executive director of Wiconi Wawokiya, is spearheading efforts to open the Pathfinder Center, a motel in central South Dakota converted to a shelter and resource hub for human trafficking victims.

Wiconi Wawokiya is a non-profit organization on the Crow Creek Reservation that serves victims of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/2f4GcvP ) reported.

Victims of human trafficking often turn to domestic violence shelters, Heth said. But those shelters usually have a 30-day or so limit for victims to stay.

That’s not long enough to help victims cope with layers of trauma they experience while being trafficked, she said. The Pathfinder Center will give trafficking victims a safe place to stay for six months to a year and provide extra services domestic violence shelters don’t have.

“Victims are going to be able to come and rest,” Heth said. “They can breathe and relax and know they don’t only have 30 days to think of somewhere they have to go.”

The idea for the shelter came unexpectedly in March 2015. A random phone call from a motel owner and a steady faith led Heth to the bank to ask for a loan to turn the motel into a shelter.

Two loans, a grant and a lot of meetings later, the shelter is on track to open in early 2017. Heth hopes to serve victims from around the state.

The motel’s upper level has 14 rooms, each individualized and sponsored by a group to give each victim a place to call their own.

“Those donations show the victims how much (people) care about them,” Heth said. “This could be anybody’s daughter, niece, sister, aunt. It crosses all financial, racial lines.”

The lower level serves as kitchen and office space and rooms for staff and volunteers.

It will also have a room dedicated for interviews if the victims choose to report the trafficking to law enforcement. Those interviews can last hours, sometimes days and having a room in the motel can help victims feel more at ease.

Victims staying in the shelter will have access to education resources, if they want to get their GED or take college courses online, job skills classes, resume building, activity time, daily task skills, etc. Mental health experts will be available if victims request counseling.

The organization is not releasing the exact location of the motel to keep victims’ identities safe, Heth said.

“Trafficking is a $150 billion industry. Traffickers won’t take lightly to no longer having access to the girls they had. We’re trying to make this as secure as possible,” Heth said.

Wiconi Wawokiya will coordinate with other human trafficking awareness organizations around the state to place victims in the shelter.

Heth hopes to hire the rest of her staff in December and open the shelter in February 2017.

There are still a few kinks to work out. Heth is in need of an electrician to rework the kitchen and office space area. The shelter also needs items that can’t be purchased with grant money, such as kitchen items, books, art supplies. A complete wish list is on the Pathfinder Center’s website.

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Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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