TAMPA, Fla. - Christa Hernandez, founder of the non-profit “Loving You Where You Are At,” visits strip clubs with a crew of volunteers twice a week to support the women “trapped” in the industry.
Hernandez spent 20 years of her life being sex trafficked.
“It started when I was 18,” she said. “I was bartending at the strip club and they had dancers who would come and fill in one night a week. They asked me if I would dance and I said sure.”
Hernandez says one of the dancers befriended her and would give her free drugs. They hung out often and Hernandez says her friend started asking her to drive her places.
“I’d ask where are we going," she said. "She’d say, ‘oh I’m going to model lingerie and do private dances.’ I’d see her coming out of these houses with so much money. One day she told me ‘you can make what I make but you’re going to have to talk to the boss.'"
Hernandez said when she spoke to the boss, she was told they were going to send her to “a regular” to see if she could make the cut. She quickly learned “making the cut” involved more than just dancing.
SELLING GIRLS: Sex traffickers are targeting young females
“When I said ‘I don’t want to do this’, they said ‘we have video of you going into that first customer’s house.’ So, it was all blackmail," she said. "They told me I’d never be able to get a job again. The next call they sent me on, there were five men in one room. That broke me in ways I had never been broken and that turned into 20 years of my life.”
A life filled with drugs and sex. Christa said she wanted to get out but didn’t know how to until she found God.
“When I was on my way to becoming free I knew I wanted to go back and reach my sisters and brothers that are still where I was at that moment,” she said.
She got out of the business in 2010 and founded her non profit three years later.
“A lot of people think of human trafficking as girls locked in cages with tape over their mouth," she said. "That is real, and it’s a huge problem. In the US, however many victims are sex trafficked like I was. People know it as prostitution but those women are victims. They want to get out. No little girl dreams of growing up and being sexually exploited. Something goes terribly wrong along the way."
Hernandez and other survivors make weekly visits to strip clubs as part of their outreach. She says it's to show them they’re loved.
“We go to about a dozen strip clubs and massage parlors every month," she said. "We bring the girls gifts and talk with them. The gift baskets always have our card that says you are loved, valued and purposed. Support is only a phone call away. “
One strip club manager said Hernandez’s outreach makes a big difference to the girls.
“If they’re in trouble they know they have someone to go to, because these girls don’t have anyone to go to normally," he said.
Hernandez recently wrote a book called “No Safe Place,” which details her experiences from child abuse to sex trafficking.
“I think it will bring hope to people even if they are not in the industry," she said. "Anyone who finds themselves in a tough time or place I think this book can bring them hope and awareness of what human trafficking in the US looks like."
January is National Human Trafficking awareness month. According to the Florida Dream Center, an outreach for Human trafficking, Florida ranks 3rd in the nation for human trafficking across the U.S. The Tampa Bay area, is one of biggest problem areas in our state. It also reports there are between 100,000 – 300,000 sex trafficking victims under 18 in the U.S. per year.Christa is renovating a house she plans to turn into a safe house for victims. She’s in the process of getting private funding and donations through a Go Fund Me page to get it completed as soon as possible.