'The human spirit is so resilient': How local groups help trafficking victims find hope

Though she once walked the streets selling her body, Becky Zeller today hits the streets to help trafficking victims.

Not long ago, she found herself in the same spot as the women she seeks to help. From a young age, Zeller was sexually exploited and spent much of her adult life working for pimps and racking up prostitution charges in multiple states.

Now, Zeller is a graduate of Naomi's House, a Wheaton-based therapeutic program for victims of sex trafficking, and is the organization's community outreach coordinator.

Her goal is simple: Let women know there is help and hope, and to help women begin their journey to healing.

"I had no idea about anything," Zeller, now 37, recalls. "For all those years I was out there ... in all those states, I was prostituting, and I had no idea there were programs out here like this.

"Had I known, maybe I wouldn't have went through all the stuff that I have been through. Maybe it would've ended at a younger age."

Spreading awareness that help is available and that human trafficking is happening in the suburbs are the key tools in the fight against it, experts say.

The recent arrests of five people trafficking seven women in Kane and Cook counties shocked many. But Zeller and others say that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"As long as there's demand, there will always be a supply," said Simone Halpin, co-founder and executive director of Naomi's House, adding that the collar counties rank among the highest in the state when it comes to purchasing sex.

While Illinois ranks eighth in terms of resources available to help trafficking victims, according to a 2023 report by the anti-trafficking nonprofit Safe House Project, only about 1% of trafficking victims are ever reached, Halpin said.

Building awareness

Why so few? Experts say it's because there's a lack of awareness of services available, and many victims don't realize they have a choice.

Victims often are conditioned at a young age to obey their abusers. Their traffickers also use various means - such as threats of harm or isolating victims from their families - to control them.

"Women have difficulty identifying that they had a choice in the matter," Halpin said. "They don't identify as a survivor ... that comes much later in the healing."

That healing journey takes time, Halpin said, starting with small steps like a doctor's visit or allowing space to let someone feel their emotions. As they take those small steps, Naomi's House, and other groups like it, provide a therapeutic setting to help women identify their trauma.

"It can be devastating to think, 'I was a piece of property,'" Halpin said, adding that often trafficking victims are conditioned to think they have no value.

In Zeller's case, she viewed her traffickers as boyfriends. One pimp, she recalled, kept her awake at all hours, pouring water on her if she fell asleep and selling her to different men. But in her 19-year-old mind, she saw the relationship differently.

"I thought I was in love," she said, noting she never saw a penny of what she made, not even to buy clothes. "He had me hypnotized."

At Naomi's House, survivors go through a program that often takes about two years to complete. Once they are done, Naomi's House continues to assist as clients move toward independence.

Reaching children

Reclaim 13 is an organization that works with children who have been sexually abused or exploited. It is the only residential program in the state for children who have been trafficked for sex.

Much like Naomi's House, Reclaim 13 provides a therapeutic setting for young trafficking victims to regain control over their lives.

"We focus a lot on building healthy relationships," said Cassandra Ma, executive director of the Lombard-based organization.

Much like Naomi's House, the organization addresses medical and emotional needs as children heal. It also offers online schooling so children can focus on their healing in a safe environment, and it offers a young adult program serving those ages 18 to 25.

Like other agencies, Reclaim 13 has seen a significant increase in calls since the pandemic. The victims the organization helps also are reporting that the demand for younger children in the sex trade is increasing.

"Children are much more vulnerable than before," said Ma, adding that children are particularly vulnerable because they depend on adults to provide food, clothing, love and shelter.

She dismisses the stereotype that sex trafficking victims are kidnapped. Often, she said, their traffickers are someone they know and trust, like a family member or a friend.

They may not be forcibly held against their will, but "emotionally and relationally, they are very much captive," Ma said.

Hope for healing

Both Ma and Halpin said providing safe spaces for children and women is key to preventing and ending trafficking.

While they know the journey to recovery is long and difficult, both have seen the rewards in the faces of the women and children who have been helped.

"Our hope is the women, like Becky, who survived," Halpin said. "It just gives us hope that the human spirit is so resilient ... and with the right resources and the power of God, we see incredible life transformation."

Information about services provided by the two agencies can be found at and

  Becky Zeller, a graduate of Naomi's House, helps women who have been trafficked. Brian Hill/
  Simone Halpin, president and co-founder of Naomi's House, left, and Becky Zeller, a sex trafficking survivor and community outreach coordinator for Naomi's House, work to offer victims hope and a voice. Brian Hill/
  Simone Halpin, president and co-founder of Naomi's House, says awareness is key in the fight against sex trafficking. Brian Hill/
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