AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In spending just an hour at the soon-to-be-opened ranch in Central Texas where nearly 50 girls will take refuge from sex traffickers, it is clear that Brooke Crowder is passionate about what she does.
Crowder, who has spent 25 years in the nonprofit world, most recently spent time in Costa Rica working to combat the trafficking of young girls there. She returned to Texas, knowing that she had to do something to help the cause on American turf.
“All along we’ve said these girls deserve the very best,” Crowder, the founder and chief executive officer of The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, said. She and her team are preparing to open a 50-acre ranch by the end of the month for girls across Texas who have been trafficked.
The ranch, located at an undisclosed location southeast of Austin, will protect the privacy and safety of the girls and the 70-person staff, while providing housing, music and pottery rooms, science classrooms, an equine therapy program, a chapel and medical care.
“Onsite medical care is critically important because they’re all going to need help with basically getting their bodies healthy again,” Crowder explained as she led this reporter on an exclusive tour of the new facilities. “Having compassionate care onsite, the girls can access it on a daily basis as needed.”
The ranch will also have a charter school through the University of Texas.
“UT has a principal assigned to our campus, we have teachers assigned to our campus,” Crowder said.
Each girl will have her own bedroom and bathroom in a cottage, comprised of five private rooms (for four girls and a house parent), and a common room. Each cottage is located in a series of cul-de-sac style villages.
“The purpose of this space is to provide a healing, safe place,” Crowder said.
“We are residential, we are long-term, and… there are so few beds in the state of Texas, really in the United States,” she added.
“If you just give the bare minimum care which is just pretty much all that’s funded by the state then we are just putting a Band-Aid on the problem,” Crowder explained. “And often times the recidivism rate for programs that are providing just the bare minimum is very, very high.”
Those who prosecute trafficking cases say the largest challenges include the size of Texas, Texas’ diversity and victims of trafficking generally do not contact law enforcement.
“We are a large state, we are a large bureaucratic state and because of that, there’s always gaps in communication,” says Kirsta Melton, who runs the human trafficking section at the Texas Attorney General’s Office. She said the state has made strides in the last five to seven years, but communication with rural communities is a challenge.
“I would love to have comprehensive services that victims can access simply and easily and that we then are successfully bringing those people back into our workforce, back into the community where they are living healthy and fulfilling lives,” Melton said.
Congress has also looked into combatting sex trafficking. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said it is an “enormous challenge.”
“Texas is a real locus for human trafficking and sex trafficking,” Cruz recently said to reporters at an Austin event highlighting conservative ideologies.
“One of the things that I’ve done on this issue is join with a Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, to introduce legislation that would provide greater transparency for visas coming in, so that you can monitor people who are being brought in for labor slavery, being brought in by traffickers,” Cruz continued.
“It’s a growing problem,” Cruz added.
The Refuge would not have been completed without donations and partnerships with businesses and organizations from around the state.
Bricks at the ranch are etched with the names of companies that have contributed time or finances. A construction company initially agreed to install roofing for three of the buildings, but when the work started, the crew insisting on completing the roofing for all 21 structures.
Dell Corporation donated $50,000 for computers, Crowder said. West Elm and other home furniture companies helped furnish the cottages, and even jewelry designer Kendra Scott joined in, furnishing a cottage and the building that will be used to house much of the ranch’s social activity.
Kendra Scott employees are volunteering at the ranch, the company is making a $15,000 in-kind donation and through a partnership with Four Hands, furnished more than $40,000 in living and dining spaces, plus sporting equipment, puzzles and art supplies.
“After learning about The Refuge Ranch and the shocking statistics around domestic sex trafficking, especially here in Texas, I knew we had to do anything we could to support this effort,” Scott said in a statement. Director of Philanthropy Sheena Wilde said as a mother of young girls she was keenly aware of this issue’s prevalence in Texas.
“We truly believe that every child should have the opportunity to live their best and healthiest life,” Wilde said. “And so, whatever we can do to make that possible and whichever organization we can get involved with to make that happen, we want to do.”
Crowder mentioned Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott supported the project.
“She came out [to the ranch] a couple of weeks ago,” Crowder said. “She and Gov. Abbott have done so much for children in our state.”
Whether reading through a donated book, or looking at the custom kitchen backsplash with positive messages intertwined on it, each aspect of the ranch has a special meaning. Crowder said it shows a “display of communal love” for the girls.
The ranch will be home to 48 girls, mostly teens. The first girls are expected to arrive by the end of the month.