Mary White, founder of the faith-based nonprofit Gems Uncovered, has a single message she says she wants people to hear: human trafficking is real and it happens in Long Beach.
"People don't want to accept that this happens in the United States, but it does every single day," White said. "It happens close to home — it's not just a third world problem — and it even happens in Long Beach."
The nonprofit helps upwards of 50 women per year in Long Beach and Los Angeles transition away from a life of solicitation. Some of the women they meet were coerced into prostitution by their families as children, while others became victims in adulthood.
To help those survivors move forward, the nonprofit formed a partnership with Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert to offer women arrested for solicitation the option to participate in the nonprofit's sexual exploitation diversion program, called "Free 2B Me," instead of going to jail and having the arrest on their record. The caveat is that participants must complete the program.
"Gems Uncovered is a trusted resource for human trafficking victims in Long Beach and we are grateful for their service," Haubert said.
Most of those women are older than 18, but there are some who are younger. While participating in the program, participants receive shelter, counseling, GED preparation or college study assistance and lessons in resume writing and interview preparation. White and her volunteers also work with other city programs that provide housing and jobs to help the participants move on in the long term.
"When these girls come in, they have attitudes, they don’t want to be there," she said. "But within a week, their disposition changes, they start opening up and you hear their story, their backstory and you hear what in their life caused them to go in the direction they are (going)."
But White hasn’t always dedicated her life to human trafficking awareness.
In 2009, she attended a conference with her church where the guest speakers spoke about human trafficking. At the time, she had a "successful career with only five years until retirement," she said, adding that she was eager to hear what the speaker had to say, but didn't think anything more of it.
"I’m 62 now, but at the time I was in my 50s, and I really didn't know that much about human trafficking and felt embarrassed that this is the first time I’m really learning about what it is," she said. "But I kept feeling a whisper in my heart that was saying, 'Well now that you know, what are you going to do about it?'"
White said she ultimately quit her job, deciding to follow what she felt God was putting on her heart to do, adding that she was nervous, but God had a plan for her.
“I was nervous because I was so close to retirement, but all I kept feeling was that I needed to trust in God and pursue this calling of helping others … because if I am going to help others, how can I encourage them to trust God when I’m not?” she said. “And wouldn’t you know, God had a plan because I ended up receiving an early severance package from my job.
“God said to me, you didn't have to ask, I already had this waiting for you."
Fast forward one year later, in 2010, White and her pastor were invited to be on a task force called Kingdom Causes, which is now known as the Long Beach Human Trafficking Task Force. As a part of her own faith-based ministry, White and members from her church walked along Atlantic and Orange avenues and spoke with any person willing to listen and offered food, coffee and gifts with the hopes of starting conversation.
"I just remember this one girl who kept walking by, her pimp was out in the distance, and all night she'd be working but she would walk by scoping us out... She asked us what we were doing and she was surprised when I said, 'We're here for you,'" White said. "I asked if we could pray for her and asked what she wanted us to pray for, and she just started crying."
White added that the girl's name was Tiffany, she was 19 years old, and after that night, she never saw her again.
"She was a beautiful girl," she said. "She had tears in her eyes and asked us to remember her face and her name, and I believe the reason why she said that was because we saw her and she wanted to be remembered as an individual person."
Today, White's work has moved to a permanent space on Pacific Coast Highway near Orange Avenue. White credits Vice Mayor and Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews for helping them secure a space in a neighborhood that was hesitant to welcome their outreach.
"Gems Uncovered does God’s work when helping human trafficking survivors," Andrews said. "Over the years, Mary has been a great community leader and has worked to educate the community on the signs of dangerous situations. I am proud of the work this organization does in the Sixth District because they lend a hand where needed."
In addition to working with survivors, Gems Uncovered offers human trafficking awareness workshops, legal assistance for human trafficking survivors and resources for identifying signs of human trafficking and teaching children about the reality that is trafficking.
The outreach remains grassroots, and White and other volunteers are often walking along Pacific Coast Highway and Atlantic Avenue, offering to pray for people they meet and sharing their outreach program with anyone willing to listen.
"We're not here to judge anyone, we're not going to make anyone feel bad about their background or things they may have done," White said. "If someone, anyone, needs help and wants a chance to live their life differently, then we hope they'll give us the chance to help."
For more information about Gems Uncovered, to make a donation or to inquire about volunteering, go to gemsuncovered.org, or email or call Mary White directly at email@example.com or 562-912-4992.
Gems Uncovered is at 1136 E. Pacific Coast Hwy.
Stephanie Stutzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.