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Wellspring Living

Non-profit offers hope and transformation to victims of trafficking.

Two Jane Does. One eats her breakfast and leaves for work, excited about the day ahead.  Another wakes up on a smelly old mattress unable to erase the previous night’s horrors. She faces the day with dread. 

For 21 years, Wellspring Living has worked to bridge this dichotomy between the lives of most people and the victims of sex trafficking.  More than 7,000 survivors have passed through the non-profit’s programs. Leading the charge is Mary Frances Bowley, Wellspring’s founder and executive director. The Geneva, AL, native, who has lived in Fayette County for 35 years, doesn’t accept credit.  “God started it and I was there,” she said. It all began after Ann Graham Lotz asked her to lead an event for women of faith, which was attended by more than 20,000. The desire for a lasting effect led to the creation of Wellspring Living—based on the woman at the well and the need for living water. 

Wellspring began in a rented home in Fayette County to provide a safe place for women. “The first girl who walked through our doors was a victim of sex trafficking,” Bowley said.  “She’d had bad things happen to her all her life. It was hard for her to trust. She needed therapy. She didn’t know basic life skills—time management, or how to clean, cook and do laundry.”

Initially capable of serving only five women at a time, Wellspring offered comprehensive care and resources needed for victims to rebuild their lives, prepare for careers, and become independent. A North Atlanta church heard of the work and helped Wellspring purchase a home that could serve 15 women. In 2007, Mayor Shirley Franklin told Bowley, “We need your help with the girls who are being bought and sold on our streets.” Bowley couldn’t believe the magnitude. “I couldn’t put my mind around the fact that this happened to children,” she said. “Humans couldn’t do this. We always want to think about this kind of stuff happening in a foreign country. We’ve had girls from Coweta and Fayette County go through our girls’ program. It is here.”

“A trafficking victim does not have one face,” Bowley said. “They are from all cultures and all socio-economic strata.” Despite popular belief, stranger abductions are not typical. The majority are teenage girls or women who’ve grown up with lots of vulnerabilities—low self-esteem and isolation.  Many come out of foster care and family dysfunction, but all teenagers are vulnerable.  “They make a wrong move and find themselves in the hands of a trafficker,” Bowley said. “He doesn’t see them as a person, he sees them as a product.” The trafficker ‘grooms’ victims, telling them they’re beautiful and treating them to manicures and such.  “They fall for the first person who says, ‘I love you,’ and that sticks with them,” Bowley said. “It doesn’t matter that they’re abusing and exploiting them. I love you, so you need to do this so we can pay rent. They think they have a true relationship with their trafficker.” Bowley said it takes about 30 days for youth who enter Wellspring programs to realize their “boyfriend” was their exploiter.  

Traffickers are businessmen and women, gangs—anyone wanting to make quick money their victims never see.  “When I see moms who use their children to make money to cover their bills,” she said. “That’s the one that breaks your heart the most.”

Through various income streams that include sales from Wellspring Treasures Thrift Store, federal funds, grants, private donations, and annual fundraising events, Wellspring has continually expanded programs. A girls’ residential program was added in 2008 to serve victims 12 to 17. The Women’s Academy began in 2014. “We created the Women’s Academy to help them get their GED, assist them in career-building skills and then provide paid apprenticeships so they can move toward living-wage employment,” Bowley said, adding that apprenticeships in large corporations such as Delta and UPS often lead to full employment. Since 90 percent of the women in the Women’s Academy are moms, it’s transformational for two generations. “What we are doing is not just for the mother, but also for her children.” With kids being trafficked while they’re in school, Wellspring added a Youth Academy in 2018 to help teachers identify victims and address vulnerabilities. Wellspring also provides therapy, life skills, and a food pantry for students at an Atlanta alternative school. “Many of them are the breadwinners for the family yet they’re between 14 and 20,” Bowley said.

Although trafficking is still a huge problem, Bowley said awareness and care for victims have improved. “There are more services for survivors in Georgia than in any other state,” she said, adding that it takes community and government working together.  “It takes everybody putting their hand to it because it’s such a complex problem and it hits poverty, homelessness, sexual abuse, domestic violence—every malady of mankind is wrapped up in human trafficking.”   

How does Bowley and Wellspring staff remain positive while dealing with constant trauma?  “Remember the wins,” she said.  “When you believe transformation is possible, you keep going. We care for people out of the love that God has put in our hearts to treat them with dignity, to treat them as someone who has incredible value. If we can see them that way, it develops something inside of them to fight for their own freedom.”

To learn more about Wellspring, visit www.wellspringliving.com.

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