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Las Vegas nonprofit embraces victims of sex trafficking

Updated September 21, 2017 - 7:43 am

Esther Rodriguez Brown saw panic in the young woman’s eyes. After about 10 years of serving victims of sex trafficking, it is a look she knows well.

Earlier that day, the 19-year-old had escaped her pimp and called a hotline for help. Rodriguez Brown and her east Las Vegas nonprofit, The Embracing Project, agreed to keep the girl safe while another organization arranged to get her home to Minnesota.

Late in the afternoon, the other agency told the girl it would purchase her a Greyhound bus ticket. Rodriguez Brown instantly knew this was a bad idea: bus stations are a prime recruiting spot for pimps.

The girl was wide-eyed with fear. So Rodriguez Brown said she dipped into her own pocket and bought the girl a plane ticket home. “She’s a godsend,” the girl’s aunt, Heidi Rivers, said in a phone interview. “There would be a lot of girls out there looking for answers” if The Embracing Project were not around, she said.

Today, Rodriguez Brown’s nonprofit is a leading advocate for sexually exploited youths in Clark County, which is one of the nation’s hot spots for sex trafficking, experts said. In a strip mall at North Pecos Road and East Charleston Boulevard, Rodriguez Brown and two staff members operate The Center 4 Peace, where teenage victims can drop in at any time, attend school, receive counseling and mentorship, or just hang out in a safe place. The organization serves as many as 300 children a year, Rodriguez Brown said.

The Embracing Project is celebrating its 10-year anniversary Thursday, on the International Day of Peace. In the evening, it will host a silent auction, dinner and ceremony honoring U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and plastic surgeon Dr. Julio Garcia for their work benefiting sexually exploited youths, at the Troesh Studio Theater at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

The Embracing Project is founded on what Rodriguez Brown, 48, describes as a John Lennon-inspired commitment to humanitarianism. Unlike other programs, which sometimes lose patience with this notoriously difficult population, Rodriguez Brown prides herself on always welcoming girls, even if they repeatedly run afoul of the law or resume destructive habits.

“I don’t care how many times you go back to your pimp. I don’t care how many times you run away,” said Rodriguez Brown, a Spaniard and practicing Buddhist. “I’m going to be here for you.”

Her approach has won her widespread praise locally. The agency works with most trafficking victims who pass through juvenile court, and many come to rely on “Miss Esther” for guidance on everything from escaping their pimps to ordering their birth certificates to work applications.

“They taught me not to give up on myself, even when I was down and I didn’t have any hope,” said 18-year-old Phenix King, an alumna of the program. “They never stopped caring for me.”

Rodriguez Brown said The Embracing Project operates “paycheck to paycheck” and could use a larger facility. The organization has about 2,000 square feet of usable space, but Rodriguez Brown said she needs more than double that to comfortably accommodate the children she serves. She’d also like a facility with a shower and kitchen, so her clients could have a place to get cleaned up and learn life skills.

The organization is constantly searching for more resources. Its future is always in doubt. Rodriguez Brown admits the stress of it all has made her think about quitting. But then she remembers the girls she serves, and realizes she can’t give up — their needs are too great.

“I’m a hustler,” she said. “I’ll find a way.”

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