In a diminutive office on the second floor of a humble building in San Diego, a remarkable rescue mission is underway.
The office belongs to our apostolate just down the street, the church of St. Anne, which offers the use of its space to a small group of dedicated souls who comprise Children of the Immaculate Heart, an organization devoted to the service of victims of human trafficking. Begun 6 years ago by director Grace Williams, CIH has seen incredible success with its programs that assist women in escaping from trafficking, building a new life for themselves and finding Christ-centered healing. During a recent trip to San Diego, we had the privilege of talking to Grace and some of her staff about their work, the inspiration behind it and the kind of results they are seeing in San Diego.
Grace is originally from the Central Coast of California, near Monterey. A convert to the Faith from Protestantism, her conversion began when a Mormon friend asked why they were so many Christian denominations. She considered it a good question, and thought about how unity was so important to Our Lord, as evidenced by His high priestly prayer recounted in John’s Gospel, the last prayer before His Passion. She realized that Christians needed to be one.
Another critical moment came while she was on a study abroad program to Geneva and Rome in 2004. A non-Catholic professor on that trip conveyed to his students that we as Christians had to base what we believe on what Christians had always believed.
“So what did they believe at the beginning?. . . for a thousand years, we basically all believed the same thing,” said Grace, following the thought pattern laid out by her professor.
The beauty of the churches in Rome was another spark that fell on Grace’s soul during that trip.
“I was so moved, and I was also suspicious that I was moved,” she laughed. “It was slowly starting to bring the Incarnation to life, because for that type of Protestant, faith is something in your head, it’s something you assent to intellectually, but there’s nothing that makes it physically lived.”
Soon after, she came to a sudden realization that Christ was in Heaven with the same Body, albeit glorified, that He possessed on earth, that He had become Man and that that fact was never going to change.
“Everything that that means for our humanity just completely exploded in the best possible way,” she said.
Although she never harbored anti-Catholic sentiments, any prejudices she may have had evaporated upon meeting seminarians and priests from the Pontifical North American College in Rome and hearing their vocation stories. She had never seen such a radical following of Christ, such a total and free dedication of the self to God.
“I don’t get it,” she remembers thinking, “but these people are the real deal.”
Back in the States, she began to take classes at a Catholic college, met other Catholics and gradually found answers to her various questions. She entered the Church two years later in 2006.
The seeds of Children of the Immaculate Heart were sown in 2012 when she was on a pilgrimage led by a priest friend of hers. He and some of his friends had felt called to work for an end to abortion and trafficking, seeing them as linked. He explained to Grace that they saw Christ in these victims, and to Grace, it made perfect sense. She too began to see the suffering Christ in the women and girls caught up in the trafficking cycle: they were betrayed by those closest to them, sold for money, beaten, stripped, publicly humiliated. The Church’s teaching on the dignity of the person and of women in particular were big factors in her conversion, and this further helped her to see the importance of this work.
Although up to that point she had no intentions of working in this field – she had spent time at a Carmelite convent and was intending to enter a Benedictine community where she had been accepted – Children of the Immaculate Heart was founded in October 2013 under the spiritual guidance of Fr. Carl Gismondi, pastor at the time of St. Anne Parish. Famous among parishioners for his project-oriented mindset, Fr. Gismondi encouraged Grace to “just do it” and begin the work to which she was being called. He it was who suggested that they take Our Lady as their patroness under her title of the Immaculate Heart.
CIH’s motto is “To Restore All Things in Christ.” The group focuses on rehabilitation programs for trafficking victims, providing services such as therapy, a weekly support group and assistance with housing, transportation and basic needs for women over 18. The clients come to them in various ways, often as referrals from other clients, programs that can’t take them or law enforcement. They focus on women with children, since these women can rarely get help from other programs which, for the most part, only accept single women.
CIH is also in the last round of state approvals for a residential house for 12 – 17 year olds. The goal of opening such a house has been integral to the mission of CIH from its founding, as it was a central part of Grace’s initial motivation. The new house, called the Refuge, will provide full board, education, therapy, including specialty therapies such as music and equine therapy, character formation and instruction in basic life skills for up to 6 girls. Working with a charter school that provides the curriculum and oversight, the house provides complete on-site education, with a 1-3 teacher/student ratio and the goal of catching each girl up to grade level by the time she leaves. The beautiful Spanish-style home has been lovingly readied in preparation for its imminent opening, is set on 1.5 acres of land and includes such amenities as a spacious deck and yard, a classroom stocked with books and its own chapel.
Regarding the results they have seen among their adult clients, Grace calls their journeys “slow but sure progress.” She notes that the more they are able to do for a client and the longer she has been with CIH, the better her chances of success. Rather than merely giving them handouts, CIH strives to form long-term relationships with their clients, to walk with them in their journey of personal growth and to encourage them to form good habits and take ownership of their lives. The staff gave some examples of clients who have done just that. Citing one who has been with them 4 years, Grace notes how her spiritual growth has contributed to her success.
“For her what has made her succeed is making the choices to cut off bad friends,” says Grace. “That’s what she’s done more than any other client…I really think it is just through her prayer and her own reflection and choices that she just has more clarity.”
Another former client, described by Grace as their best success story, has a brilliant mind and essentially read her way out of the trafficking life. She is now highly successful in the workforce, but what is more, she is also a devout Catholic, who maintains Mass, holy hours and prayer as staples in her schedule.
“[She] probably will be a saint someday,” says Grace. “She’s just amazing.”
Margaret Boharic is the secretary of CIH. She was introduced to Grace through a mutual friend – all three had spent time at different Carmelite communities at various points in time.
“There’s a Carmelite backdrop to this whole thing,” said Margaret. An attendee of their yearly Gala might notice that the tablecloths are a suspiciously Carmelite-like shade of brown, complemented by Marian blue.
After discerning out of the religious life, Margaret basically came for a visit to San Diego and never returned to her native Chicago. She is trusted and well-liked by the clients, which is an indicator of a compassionate spirit.
“With the people who work here,” Grace explained, “there are just some people [who] through their own life experiences, through their own prayer life and contact with God, for whatever reason, have empathy and compassion, and the clients know it immediately. There’s a certain degree to where you just can’t train someone to do this…Margaret is one of those naturals.”
Amy Sorenson shares that same spirit. She joined the CIH team in January and will be the administrator and house manager for the Refuge. In addition to her passion for the issue and her love for working with trafficking victims, she brings invaluable professional experience to the team. She worked as a victim advocate for 10 years in San Bernardino County and after moving to San Diego 5 years ago, gained specific experience in running residential facilities. In a word, she is perfect for the job.
“I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed to be here,” she said. “I feel very blessed.” She considers it a privilege just to know the clients she serves, to hear their stories and to be a source of support for them. “They are the people who’ve taught me so much,” she said.
Children of the Immaculate Heart is now a fixture among the anti-trafficking efforts at work in San Diego, and is reachable via the 211 anti-trafficking hotline. A full list of clients further testifies to the copious fruits of their labors. If you would like to assist with their work, you can learn more and donate at their website, www.childrenoftheimmaculateheart.org. There are opportunities not only for monetary donations, but also for donations of items for their clients and for volunteer work.
Describing the compassionate attitude required for the work that they do, Amy often says “it has to come from your heart.” Indeed, the mission of these three devoted women and all who work with and support CIH is truly a work that comes from the heart, or we might say, from the Heart. +