House of Cherith: Refuge for Exploited Women
by Lance Colkmire

Talk about your history of ministry in Atlanta.

My dad, Bruce Deel, founded City of Refuge in Atlanta about 20 years ago, so I have been involved since I was 5 years old. Our family first moved into the church [then called “Mission Possible”] on 14th Street. I started hanging out with people in the neighborhood and those who came in for help.

I went to Lee University and studied Spanish education, and then taught for a year at Bright Futures Academy [a City of Refuge program]. Then I realized what I had known since I was 13 years old─I was supposed to help victims of trafficking. So I started doing a lot of training and certifications for that. My dad started a safe house for women, and asked me to be the director. I have been on staff full-time for four years now.

How was the name “House of Cherith” chosen?

In the Book of 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah was running for his life and stopped by the brook Cherith. He was refreshed, renewed, and restored. That is the goal of the safe house─to offer a place of refuge to rest, recover, and see what the next steps are.

Why is Atlanta a hub for sex trafficking?

In large part because of the international airport here, so a lot of people are always coming in and out of the city. I know one airline has started training their staff on how to recognize a trafficking victim. There are signs in airport bathrooms and at bus stops giving people a number to call if they feel they have been trafficked. Just raising awareness and having a more collaborative effort will help combat this tremendously.

Atlanta is scheduled to host the 2019 Super Bowl, which is one of the leading events for sex trafficking. So we are already preparing efforts to combat it.

Another reason is a lot of runaways come to Atlanta. When a young person runs away from home, they usually go to a city because, in their minds, that’s where the big dreams happen.

Describe a typical victim of sex trafficking.

Most struggle with substance abuse, and prostitution supports their drug habit. Many of them were sexually abused by close relatives during childhood.

The majority of women at House of Cherith right now are local, but we have had women from different states and countries. A lot of them have some criminal activity on their record, such as solicitation and petty charges here and there.

You mentioned runaways. What age are we talking about?

Kelsi Deel
Kelsi Deel

The average age kids get involved in this lifestyle is 12 to 14, and they are usually there for a while. We have helped people as young as 17 all the way up to their 50s.

How is the House of Cherith organized?

We have three different phases of programming. The first phase is our safe house. There, a woman gets a mental-health evaluation and a physical assessment, and we pair her with a case manager. The manager helps identify a long-term program for recovery that aligns the woman’s goals with her needs. They start working on substance-abuse prevention through a program like Narcotics Anonymous.

Phase 2 is our long-term program. That is typically 12 to 15 months, but it is not a one-size-fits-all approach. One lady graduated in six months, while another lady has been here for two years and is not close to graduation yet. Everything is individualized.

The ladies attend classes on anger management, conflict resolution, relapse prevention, budgeting and finance, and more. They learn life skills like sewing, gardening, and meal planning.

We then present them with three track options. They can choose to pursue further education, enter a vocational training program, or go straight into the workforce. So we help them with that journey.

We also provide individual and group counseling. We have a clinician who meets with the ladies weekly, as well as individually as needed.

We also offer pastoral care. We are a Christian organization. We have Bible studies together. The ladies can go to church together.

We offer fitness classes because we firmly believe that women who feel better about their bodies are less likely to abuse them or let other people abuse them.

Our last phase of programming is our transitional home. Ladies move there once they have secured full-time employment. They work during the day, and they have recovery options such as art therapy, pet therapy, and individual or group therapy during the evening. The goal is to ween them off program dependency into a life of self-sufficiency. They start to pay for their own medication and transportation, and they get their phones back. They get more freedom but also more responsibility. The ultimate goal is to secure independent housing.

How many residents do you have at a given time?

We can house up to 40 at a time. Each woman gets her own bedroom and shares a bathroom with one other lady. They do get some privacy, but it is a family atmosphere. They eat meals and do events together.

How is all of this funded?

House of Cherith is funded through City of Refuge, which has a fundraising and development team. We have corporate sponsors as well, such as Chick-fil-A and the World of Coke. We also apply for federal and local grants, but the vast majority of support comes from individual donors.

Tell the stories of a couple of individuals whom the House of Cherith has helped.

We just graduated six ladies from the long-term program. One of them is 21 years old. When she came to us, she couldn’t even sleep in her own bed because she had so much trauma happen there. She slept on the floor or in the closet; anywhere but the bed. She wouldn’t turn the lights off or shut the door; she was petrified.

We kept working with her, showing her she was safe, valuable, and loved. There were baby steps along the way, but she graduated after a year and a half. She’s now in college and sleeping in her own dorm room. She is looking forward to getting her ministerial license; she wants to be a pastor.

One of our first graduates had been trafficked by her father since she was 3 years old. He locked her in a dog cage and would let her out only when he had a new customer for her. She had some bad self-harm tendencies to cope with her past, along with drug and alcohol issues. She has been clean and sober now 18 months. She has a full-time job, her own apartment, and her own car. She now works with an organization that helps fight trafficking.

What is the most difficult part of what you do?

The most difficult part is when an individual chooses to leave instead of sticking with the program; it’s heartbreaking. We want their recovery so much, but they’re not quite ready. It’s tough emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

We’ve only had three cases where a woman had been here a long time and chose to relapse. But even with those who have only been here a few days and choose to leave, it’s heartbreaking.

Talk about the spiritual dynamics of the ministry.

It is unreal how awesome the Father has been to us, taking such good care of us. Our organization is located in downtown Atlanta on the most dangerous block in Georgia. Yet, we haven’t had any incidents where pimps have come on campus to get their girls or anything like that. We do have gates and armed security. The Father has put a hedge of protection around us, and He’s equipping us daily to serve these ladies.

Just being able to love them and say, “You are valuable and you deserve more than this” speaks more than you can imagine to these ladies who have heard the opposite their entire lives. We don’t have to preach to them for them to know Jesus is real; we get to show them by loving them.

We had a lady come through who prayed to Allah the first few months she was here. Then she said, “I need to know a little bit more about your God.”

Spiritual transformations and physical ones, like being clean and sober, go together. The lady who had been trafficked since she was 3 had over 29 years of trauma. She was not going to be healed in one year if Jesus was not involved; He’s the ultimate Healer.

We get to take the ladies to church with us. It’s fun to see them pouring their hearts out in worship and singing to God, “You’re a good, good Father,” because they haven’t had good fathers.

What is the most eye-opening fact that churches should know about the trafficking of women?

People either don’t realize or try to avoid the fact that a lot of the men who are trying to buy these women actually are in our churches or in our affluent communities. It’s not just the hoods and the ghettos. Alpharetta is an affluent community near Atlanta, and they just did several sex-trafficking busts there. Judges, lawyers, and business people are all taking part in this injustice.

How has leading this ministry transformed you?

I’ve learned so much in these four years, and I feel like I’ve done it for 800 years. The women have helped me value myself more, and they have helped me fall more in love with my Creator. Every day I wake up thrilled to come to work. I get to hang out with God’s princesses.

When you walk through some of the darkest places in somebody’s life, it builds trust and rapport. I watch milestones being reached, and I get to celebrate recovery.

This ministry has changed my view of men and what I want in a husband. How much I value myself is how much he will value me. I could preach to you all day about it.

Kelsi Deel is director of Atlanta’s House of Cherith, a place of refuge and restoration for women who have been victimized by sexual exploitation and trafficking.