Thriving after unimaginable trauma. First, a young child was sexually assaulted. They escaped that torture only to find the very person who said they would help, wanted to sell them. The damage is deep, and the healing isn’t immediate when a victim escapes their sex trafficker.
Angela Valenti, a sex trafficking survivor, said her sexual abuse started when she was 3 years old. She said she ran away at 12.
“Men in their late 30's I thought were my boyfriends and them having to have sex with me was love. Not realizing it was exploitation. What did I know about love? I was 13 when I met the man who’d become my husband," she said. "He introduced me to trafficking. He forced me to dance in strip clubs, because he had to have more money, and then exchange sexual favors because he demanded more money. It was the darkest parts of my life."
She said those were the darkest parts of her life. But now, she has been able to find who she truly is. From victim to advocate. Sex trafficked for more than a decade, Valenti is now a beacon for survivors. In her role at Selah Freedom, she models strength for those just entering the program.
“I have been blessed to be able to do that, to pour into the next survivor and stand for future, hope and freedom for women who were in captivity like I was," she said.
Valenti knows how lucky she is. Once she escaped the horrors, her trafficker got even more violent. He has now been charged with manslaughter.
"Because of Selah and supporters, I have my life today. And I am able to give back each and every day," she said.
She said her trafficker is currently awaiting trial after being accused of killing another girl he was trafficking.
Another survivor's captor was found guilty.
“I believed that letting him sell me to other men for his profit was a good idea," the survivor said. "That somehow, he would protect me. I felt violated not only physically but emotionally. He humiliated me and made me believe I was his property.”
Those words held the power to convict Calvin Williams. Williams, who was known as "Cadillac Hustle," on the street, is no longer able to drive any other girl to a dark place. He’ll spend decades in a dark cell while she is finally free.
“I am no victim. I am a survivor," she said.
She said Williams got 30 years in prison.
"Justice was served," she said. "I forgave him. Forgiveness has been a big part of my journey. By forgiving him I’m not saying that anything he did was ok, I’m saying that I don’t want to hold onto that resentment anymore. I want to be free. And that’s what I am today, I’m free.”
Freedom for her means transforming her trafficker's name, which he tattooed on her body. Instead of creating another scar to remove it, she is opting for a metamorphosis.
“It’s hard because when I take a shower or get dressed, it’s there," she said. "I decided to get it covered up with something beautiful. That's who I was, it's not who I am now.”
Knowing survival is possible gives hope to those who didn’t even realize a house could be a home.
“They treated me like a human being and an individual. I love it," the survivor said.
She and other survivors in Selah's residential program have a bright room to envision their future—a living room where the concept of life takes shape.
Sarah Frazer, regional residential coordinator of Selah Freedom said it's very much a family atmosphere.
“We want the ladies to feel like this is family, a safe place, something they’ve never had before. There’s a fridge and a working stove, it’s sometimes the first time these ladies have had access to that in their lives," Frazer said.
And for some it's the first time in years they have been able to lay their head down on a real bed, finally dreaming, not dreading.
“To have her own bed, have her own shower, to be able to wash her clothes in a washing machine rather than a McDonald’s bathroom," Frazer said.
It’s not just the physical needs but the emotional void filled.
“I had been in and out of hospitals and rehabs. I just thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I wasn’t fixable," one survivor said.
“The nightmares would haunt me. I was filled with anxiety. Panic attacks were an expected event," another said.
“I am able to say these things and not have the feelings associated with it because of trauma therapy that I’ve been through," a third survivor said.
“One-hundred percent of every girl who comes through our door started being sexually abused when she was two, three, four years old. Once they come in, that’s the first part of the trauma clearing, is getting down to that root because when you hit that, then they can go to education or life skills classes, but these girls are trying to not remember the horrific things that happened to them," Elizabeth Fisher, Selah Freedom CEO, said.
They unplug the trauma with trained counselors. Then they start life anew.
“I went back to college in the program, graduated with honors. I have reunited with all of my children. This year we have our first home, and I am able to pour into the next survivor," Valenti said.
“That’s my goal in life is I want to continue down this journey for myself but, also, so I can help as many people as possible along the way," a survivor said.
Many of these survivors said they have law enforcement to thank for their first steps toward survival -- after they were picked up for sex crimes, a caring judge would sentence them to Selah.
WGN is working with law enforcement to show you their efforts at stopping sex trafficking and show the connection between this crime and the opioid crisis. Stay tuned as we continue to delve into this critical topic in the coming weeks.
Selah Freedom just received a $700,000 matching gift to build yet another campus for survivors. To learn more, check out selahfreedom.com.
This is Part 2 of a multi-part series. Click here to watch Part 1: "Chicago teen was sold into sex trafficking — and escaped."
Mike D'Angelo WGN photojournalist, editor contributed to this report.