EVERYDAY HERO: Helping women escape the world of sex trafficking

Christa Hernandez is helping other women escape a life of sex trafficking.

On a calm afternoon, at an undisclosed location, Christa Hernandez gripped a sledgehammer on a mission.

She swung with purpose and left gaping holes in a sheet of drywall. Dust flew in the air and settled in her purple hair.

It was a liberating first step towards completing her dream.

“I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time,” she said with a wide grin.

Loading ...

After a few minutes of smashing and carving, one swift kick freed up the space between the living room and the kitchen in her new dream home. The wall came tumbling down the same way her shame vanished just a few years ago.

This was her home. Only, it’s not for her.

“It’s called the Butterfly House,” she said proudly, with dust caking her clothing.

Hernandez has dreamed of this moment. She says God placed it on her heart around Nov. 21, 2010, the day she finally escaped the clutches of a toxic lifestyle.

Hernandez is a survivor of 20 years of sex trafficking. Now, a few years removed from getting out of that abusive career, she’s determined to get more women away from the damaging cycle she lived for two decades. She’ll do it by providing a safe place to start over.

“Wow. I mean you know things happen, I’m educated, I know that, but when you see somebody up there telling their story and what they’re doing, I can’t even put it into words,” said Christa’s friend, Lauren Melnick, who helped her kick down the living room wall. “It was like this force. I needed to help.”

Hernandez joined the adult entertainment world as a teenager after years of abuse at home. Her father mistreated her and sent her off to bartend at a local strip club at the age of 17. One night, Hernandez was asked to fill in on the dance floor. She got hooked by the attention and the money.

It didn’t last. She was slowly coerced into the world of sex for money. She ended up spending years trapped in that arena. She was told she was worthless unless she was making money with her body. She didn’t have many other places to go besides the trafficking world.

Loading ...

She knew she had to get free.

“Safe houses and beds for these women are so rare,” Melnick said.

Hernandez eventually found the courage to leave that life behind but realized there were not many resources waiting for her. She took a sales job. A friend invited her to church one day and she reluctantly attended.

“I thought the church would burn down,” she joked, dressed in a black shirt with the word ‘REDEEMED’ scrawled on the chest. “I didn’t.”

She says “Jesus got ahold of me”, and that life conversion inspired her start the faith-based non-profit, Loving You Where You Are At. The group helps support and education women who are trapped in the adult entertainment world. She and some other volunteers, friends and survivors frequently make trips to Tampa-area strip clubs to speak with dancers and offer them gift bags full of goodies she calls, “love bombs”. The goal is to endear themselves to the women currently making money with their bodies and share stories about how they can escape the lifestyle.

Once they choose to leave the adult entertainment world behind, the Butterfly House awaits.

“This is a start but I have a dream of more,” Hernandez said while touring a spare room at the Butterfly House. “It’s the second-largest crime in the whole world and I think if we had true stats, it’s probably the largest crime because it’s such a hidden crime.

“We need to get better at the pipeline out. Part of that has to consist of places for them to go.”

According to Hernandez, the United States safehaven facilities offer less than 200 beds for women older than 18 years old who have been sex trafficked. In Florida, there only have two.

The name Butteryfly House represents a new life for the women who choose to live there. The residents, up to eight at a time, will be put in a 12 to 18-month program designed to offer healing and life skills. Hernandez didn’t have anything to put on a resume when she exited the sex world. Her program plans will help educate women on career possibilities.

“Just when the caterpillar thinks that it’s world is over, it turns into a butterfly,” Melnick said. “It gives me chills now just saying it out loud. We can open our doors to these women and give them a safe place.”

Loading ...

Hernandez wrote a book about her survival and escape from the sex industry. "No Safe Place" was published by the Tampa-based publisher Now SC Press.

She hopes to open the Butterfly House in April 2018. She estimates it will cost $200,000 to operate the home annually. She is accepting donations on her Loving You Where You Are At website and GoFund Me account.

“It’ll be a healing place the whole time,” Hernandez said. “I can’t even put it into words. This is surreal. I’m thankful.”

Make it easy to keep up-to-date with more stories like this. Download the 10News app now.

Have a news tip? Email desk@wtsp.com, or visit our Facebook page or Twitter feed.