BRIDGEPORT — A nonprofit that rescues young women from the city's underground sex trade is looking to expand its mission.
Leaders with The Dreamcatcher Foundation typically set out in a utility van overnight and search the city's streets for troubled young women and the pimps who hold them against their will.
Their goal is to end human trafficking in the city and suburbs, which the group said claims up to 25,000 women and girls annually, with the bulk of them involved in prostitution by the age of 15 years old.
Casey Cora discusses the Dreamcatcher Foundation and its outspoken leader:
At a fundraising luncheon at Bridgeport's Zhou B Art Center on late last week, the group's charismatic co-founder Brenda Myers-Powell delivered powerful testimony about her upbringing and addressed the need for the foundation to evolve into a full-fledged, brick-and-mortar social service agency.
Born to a 16-year-old mother who died shortly after childbirth and raised by an alcoholic grandmother, Myers-Powell said she was thrust into a cycle of abuse, first being molested as a toddler and later kidnapped, beaten, raped and burned by various pimps and johns.
"It would take me all night to tell you how many [times] and how it made me feel," she said.
She said it took nearly 25 years in the prostitution trade to realize she wasn't alone, that thousands of other young women were in the same predicament — scared and in desperate need of counseling and comfort.
A trailer for an upcoming documentary about Myers-Powell, shown at the fundraiser, reveals part of her methods to help the prostitutes. She starts with a hug and tells the girls she loves them and explains that it's not their fault.
"It's time for the little woman to grow up. It's her turn now," she tells one of the young women.
Myers-Powell paired up with foundation CEO Stephanie Daniels-Wilson to start the nonprofit in 2008 on little more than a shoestring budget and a vision to empower the victims of human trafficking.
Today, it's grown into a resource agency that's largely comprised of survivors of addiction, sex trafficking, molestation and other abuses, which the founders and law enforcement officials say sets Dreamcatchers apart from other social services. It's still basically run out of Daniels-Wilson's Hyde Park home.
Detective Dion Trotter, who heads up the Cook County Sheriff's Office Child Protection Response Unit, said employing survivors to assist in the rescue and recovery of prostitutes is a powerful tool in helping solve their underlying issues, which often stem from a toxic mess of abuse, poverty, drugs and untreated mental illnesses.
"These people are able to connect with these women in ways we never could. I've seen people with no hope in their eyes. Ten minutes with Brenda and they have a sparkle," Trotter said.
Already, Dreamcatchers helps arrange for mental and physical health services and provides intervention and education programs. They soon hope to build The Dream Center, a facility to house short and long-term shelters for women and a therapy center and to host a 24-hour crisis line.
To date, the group says it's taken 73 girls off the street and has established relationships with thousands more.
A couple of the women spoke at Thursday's fundraiser and told gut-wrenching tales of victimization and abuse.
Several in the audience wiped away tears.
"That's what knocks you down. How can a story even get more horrible than mine?" Myers-Powell said. "But it does. This issue is harsh. It is harsh."