Chances are, right now, there’s an old saddle buried somewhere under a pile of dusty tack in the back corner of a Montana barn. This saddle has been forgotten, just like the hole in the barn’s roof that’s been patched over by a swallow’s nest. However, outside of Missoula, there’s a ranch where old saddles like those are being restored by people who know how it feels to be forgotten. They are survivors of human trafficking. Lowell Hochhalter and his team at The LifeGuard Group have made it their mission to rescue these lives and bring them to safety. By teaching how to restore a saddle, they’re giving survivors a chance to restore themselves.
When it comes to human trafficking, Lowell is very clear on the first place to look: our own hometowns. “It’s easy to think this problem is overseas, but when you scratch the surface you find victims affected by exploitation right here, in one way or another,” he said. After Lowell and his wife Tami started looking into the epidemic, it took a long time for them to consider whether to get involved. “When we were asked about helping out, I thought no way! I didn't like the way I felt when I saw it and I wasn’t going to get my head into that. Then, we started educating ourselves,” said Lowell.
In 2018, Lowell and Tami created The LifeGuard Group and began giving school presentations. These days, getting the attention of students requires more than a PowerPoint and lecture. “Our assemblies are on a 300-foot video wall with full lights and sound,” said Lowell. Today, his son Carson does most of the presenting. “In every assembly, there’s always one person who comes up afterward to confide in me,” he said. “ I remember teaching in this one classroom. We invited the kids to write questions on note cards. Then, we answered them one by one. There was one card that I’ll never forget. It said, ‘Will it ever get better?’ That broke my heart. I really didn't know how to answer it. I prayed. I kept thinking about it. I needed to find an answer. Now, I use it as a challenge to myself. Every day, when I wake up and go to work, I'm going to do everything I can to make that answer a ‘yes’ for someone,” said Carson.
With their school visits, The LifeGuard Group aims to strengthen families. “Human trafficking is all about the exploitation of vulnerabilities. If we can help kids better themselves, then they’re less likely to be exploited,” said Lowell. In addition to school assemblies, the team organizes a Community Come Back Rally. “We invite parents and teachers to come back to the school that night with their kids,” Carson said. “We say, ‘Come to this rally and let us help you start the conversation. Then you can take it to your families at home.’”
When you have a dry saddle with grime caked in the cracks, it’s not always best to go scrubbing and washing right away. The first step is to soften that thirsty leather with a long soak in the warm sun and a daily sponging of warm water. The team takes a similar approach after rescuing a victim. In those gritty moments between escape and safety, patience and compassion make the biggest difference. Tami remembered how they helped one girl escape from Phoenix. “We had been in contact with her about getting out. Then, she called and said she was ready. We had to act fast. But we were in New Jersey and couldn’t leave, so we decided to fly her to us. She cried and slept for two days. In all that time, she had just one complaint. Her feet felt sore because she only had stilettos. So, we went out and bought some shoes. It’s those small things that make a big difference when someone first escapes,” said Tami.
For Joe Danzer, Search Coordinator, finding potential rescues has become a singular mission. “I grew up in an abusive situation. The people who were supposed to be protecting me were doing me harm. Now, I have a chance to help others in the same situation. Failure is not an option for me. I’m going to do whatever it takes when it comes to the search,” he said. Joe remembered one time when the team had to jump into action after getting a call from a Frenchtown woman. “She was worried about her 13 year old niece,” he said. “The girl was living with her mom and had gone to Washington state to visit her dad for Christmas. Then, she disappeared. No one knew it, but she had three Instagram accounts. She’d been talking to someone online. When we finally found her, the FBI picked her up just before the guy was about to cross into Mexico with her.”
Back in Missoula, The LifeGuard Group runs the LifeHouse, a ranch with plenty of quiet space for horses and rescued residents alike. Emily Miller serves as the In-Home Coordinator. “Within the first 48 to 72 hours upon arrival, every woman is seen by our physicians and our mental health partners to begin creating her treatment program,” Emily explained. In addition to professional support, a variety of activities help residents regain a sense of normalcy. Equine therapy is included and each woman is offered a saddle to restore. In addition, Heidi Stockbauer, Case Manager, works with each woman to connect them with resources for ongoing healing. She’s seen people transform from victims to survivors through their time on the ranch. “Our women are so brave,” Heidi said. “It’s important that they can look forward without looking back. What happened to each woman might not be worth loving, but she is.”
After a saddle has been brought back to life, it still needs a strong cinch to stay stable so the rider can keep going. The LifeGuard Group stays strong with the support and strength of officials, donors, and volunteers. “It's not just us out there,” Lowell said. “Private investigators, police, the sheriff's office, clinics, therapists, the governor's and attorney general’s offices—so many people come alongside us. Then there are the generous donors. Our goal is to pay off the mortgage of the LifeHouse by February 2024. We’re already halfway there thanks to their generosity. Our volunteers are so giving of their time, too. We have volunteers who take crisis calls. We set them up so they can take those from home with an anonymous phone number. Many volunteers come to us with new ideas for programming and we’re open to considering anything. I like to say that there’s a volunteer out there who is the best person for the job, they just don't know it yet.”
Chances are, right now, a woman at the LifeHouse ranch is grooming or working with a horse. When she’s ready to leave and create a life of her own choosing, she can take her saddle with her. She will move forward with solid proof—etched in supple leather and restored by her own hands—that all is not lost, no matter how much neglect she’s endured. That same truth keeps The LifeGuard Group encouraged. Despite the bleak places they go, Lowell remains hopeful. “I know this all looks dark, but we can come back from this, just like these women who are healing every day.”
To learn about how you can help, visit TheLifeGuardGroup.org.
“I know this all looks dark, but we can come back from this, just like these women who are healing every day.” - Lowell Hochhalter