When award-winning nonprofit leader Faith Huckel moved to New York City in 2003, she expected her time there to shape her career, but she thought that impact would come more from the social work graduate program she was entering than events at the United Nations headquarters nearby.
Then, just weeks into her studies, President George W. Bush addressed the UN, concluding a speech focused on the Middle East with a discussion of human trafficking, which he called a "modern-day form of slavery." Four months later, The New York Times Magazine ran an 8,500-word cover story on sex trafficking in America that launched thousands of shocked conversations.
Speaking to me recently, Huckel recalled the typical reaction to the report: "What? This is happening here? No. Come on. That's crazy." But, for her, she said, curiosity became an "obsession."
During previous social work in Philadelphia, Huckel, 33, had already seen the connection between poverty and commercial sex. "No one wakes up as a little girl one day and says, 'I think I'm going to be a prostitute. That's a great career for myself,' " she said. "Because of poverty, of gender oppression, of life situations and circumstances of being coerced, oftentimes forced, you are then forced into prostitution."
Yet, like many Americans at the time, Huckel was stunned by what she learned about the scale of sex trafficking. "The more and more that I learned, the more broken I became for wanting to do something about this," she said.
A few months later, that led to a conversation over dinner with the two women who would become her co-founders in Restore NYC, a 501©(3) that provides "long-term, holistic aftercare services" for "foreign-born survivors of sex trafficking."
But her new-found knowledge also shaped her master's thesis at Columbia University. "I kept asking the question over and over again from the service provider perspective, 'If there was one thing that New York City needed, what would be that one thing?' " she said. The consistent answer: long-term safe housing and aftercare services.
"It doesn't matter how great law enforcement is, how great your laws are, how great your rate of rescue is," Huckel said. "If you don't have aftercare programs to deal with the women coming out, they're just going to go right back in. "
In the fall of 2007, she and her co-founders held a small fundraiser that brought in $17,000, enough for Huckel to start part-time as Restore's executive director. By 2009, they were able to hire a program director and start helping clients. Then in 2010, thanks to a large, anonymous donation, they were able to open New York City's first safe house of its kind.
Last year, Huckel was chosen from more than 2,000 nominees for the Classy Awards' Young Nonprofit Leader of the Year, which recognizes those whose work has "raised the bar for all."
"Restore has been defined in a very quick period of time by other organizations in the city as providing absolutely excellent care of our clients," she said, but Huckel takes little credit for that.
"Looking back … I know that I didn't have and certainly still do not have the power to do what we're doing on a day-to-day basis if it wasn't for [God] working through me and through his strength," she said.
As for many start-up entrepreneurs, the launch year was particularly difficult. "I refer to 2008 as the year from hell," Huckel said. Though she had led the volunteer program at New York nonprofit Hope for New York for three years, she had no executive experience.
"I think my learning curve was off the charts," she said. One of many things she had to learn by attempting it was grant writing. Huckel took a course, "then went home and wrote my first grant. That was pretty much how everything was really done that year," she said. "If I didn't know how to do it, I'd contact somebody. I'd read a book. I'd figure it out and give it a shot."
A frequent contact was the God she believed had called her to start Restore. "There were some nights where I would go to bed and I would be so exhausted that I couldn't even pray for myself," she recalled. "It was like I didn't even have any words. So what I would do is I would open up Psalms and I would just read the Psalms out loud. And I would say, 'God, let this prayer of David be my prayer, because … I don't even have the energy or the ability to even like come up with what I need to ask for.'"
After a while, she also asked seven close friends to pray for her one day a week. "I asked each one, 'Would you be willing to pray for me on Monday? Would you be willing to pray for me on Tuesday?' And I knew that every single day this person in my life that I loved and cared about and I knew they loved and cared about me and knew all the deepest and darkest complicated things that were going on in my heart at the time was praying for me."
Friends also helped Huckel fight for boundaries. "It's so easy for anyone in ministry, I think, to get so caught up in the work," she said. "Your identity starts to become work, and then other people start to identify you as that as well, and it's like you become … 'the trafficking lady.'" But thanks to her core community (she attends Trinity Grace Church), she's reminded constantly "that I am not Restore and Restore is not me. I am first and foremost a child of God."
For an organization focused on restoring women's sense of their humanity, that's important. Though Restore's website emphasizes the services offered, rather than the underlying spiritual motivation, Huckel said, "the foundation of what we're doing is coming from a place of the love that Christ has shown us."
That love not only exposes the darkness but gradually overcomes it. "You read the statistics and the books and the newspaper articles [about human trafficking] and you hear these horrifying cases," Huckel acknowledged. "And these are incredibly dark and evil, horrifying pictures of the world.
"But we get to see the other side of that picture, which is the restoration and the hope that comes through women being empowered and women given the opportunity to be told a different story for their lives: You are loved, you are accepted, you are a child of God. And that is truly empowering. And that is what keeps most of the staff doing what they're doing."
Anna Broadway is a writer and web editor living in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity and a regular contributor to Her.meneutics.