"It was not part of my 25-year plan to live on top of a remote mountain in Santa Barbara. It was not a part of my plan to build a place of refuge for girls rescued from sex trafficking. It was not part of my plan to leave behind friends and family to fight the modern-day slavery that exists on my own doorstep. In fact, as a city girl from Los Angeles with a successful career in the entertainment industry, it was something that was definitely not on my radar! Luckily, it was a part of God’s plan. And because of it, I am more of the woman I was created to be.

In 2012, I was visiting a local Church when I heard the following: “Sex trafficking is the fastest growing, criminal industry in the USA and the average age of entry is 12 years old”. When I heard this statistic, I was horrified. Twelve years old! I thought of my 12-year-old niece. I thought of the sweet 12-year-old girl next door. I thought of so many innocent young girls ensnared into this depravity, and I knew I couldn’t just stand by. The lioness in me raised her head and roared “No way, not our vulnerable ones, not on my watch!’ It’s not that I felt incredibly brave or ready to fight, it was that I knew I couldn’t do nothing. And nothing in my world was ever going to be the same again.

Shortly thereafter, my husband and I partnered with Bob Ryan, a native of Santa Barbara, who had come across a retreat property for sale, remotely hidden at the top of a mountain. At the time, there were only 511 beds in residential programs specifically designed for victims of sex trafficking. After many meetings with the owners, we agreed to use the property to address the rescue housing crisis and provide a trauma-informed recovery program on site. Just like that, Hope Refuge was born. I remember the day they handed us the keys and said: “Let’s see what you can do.” I was excited--and terrified.

The more time we spent in Santa Barbara, though, the more I realized that it is the perfect place for Hope Refuge. On the surface, Santa Barbara is a reflection of many who live within her boundaries. There’s lavish beauty and freedom, endless stories of success, and the sense that it’s a safe place that “has it all together.” Yet underneath it all, everything is not as it seems. A dark reality is being exposed in Santa Barbara, along with many other cities across our nation. The more we delved into the Santa Barbara community, the more the darkness of the sex-trafficking industry emerged. Vulnerable girls and boys are being captured and exploited for others’ gain, sex-driven men create a demand for young bodies, and all along the exploiters make an awful lot of money. It’s not an industry people think of when they think of Santa Barbara--but it’s an industry that’s ever-growing, and it needs to be stopped.

But despite its dark underbelly, Santa Barbara shines with light. Along our journey, countless members of the community have joined us in fighting this cause. Organizations and individuals from different sectors of society are rising up in unison to say ‘This is wrong and we are going to do something about it.” It is said that it takes a whole community to raise a child. Now, in Santa Barbara, it takes the whole community to keep our children safe. This fight needs everyone!

Without a doubt, co-founding Hope Refuge is the hardest thing I have ever done, but by far the most rewarding. Although I have placed my own dreams on the back burner, I will never regret my pursuit of the abolition of modern-day slavery. Fighting this kind of evil for young, vulnerable victims have been incredibly intimidating as it can often seem insurmountable. It has toughened me up and made me more resilient. At times, however, it has brought me to despair. It’s in those times that I remind myself, that even if all of this was just for one child’s restoration, it would still be worth it.

On this journey, Santa Barbara has brought out the very best of me. I feel more in tune with my inner world as I look out over the stunning mountain and ocean landscapes. It reminds me of how small I am and how fleeting life can be. These past few years have been a time of facing difficult heart issues that can easily go hidden in hectic, city life. I am more surrendered than ever to God to take up the plight of children who can’t fight for themselves. I live more wholehearted than ever here in Santa Barbara, and in many ways, creating a space for these girls to dream has actually enlarged my own dreams and for that I am grateful.

Some call me courageous, and others call me crazy, but truthfully, I just believe. I believe in a God who says nothing is impossible. I believe the heart of man was made to be compassionate and caring. I believe light overcomes darkness. I believe people can change when given the chance to dream, to hope, and above all, to receive love.

I believe Santa Barbara can lead the way in ending sex-trafficking!"
~Sally Cook

Nathan Williamson