Trafficked women find joy, healing through a rare, small ministry run by survivors

KSAT’s Solutionaries team found one very unique solution to recovery. It’s a small ministry in the Hill Country.

HILL COUNTRY, Texas – Human trafficking is a topic that’s hard to learn about.

It might make you want to look away or click on something else, but stick around because it can affect anyone.

It doesn’t just happen in foreign countries, and it’s not like the movies where someone is swiped into a car and driven off.

Human trafficking often starts online with criminals grooming children or adults who think they’re in a relationship.

The ways people are trafficked are different, but the trauma is the same.

Increased attention has agencies stepping up the work to prevent it and provide care for survivors.

KSAT’s Solutionaries team found one unique solution to recovery. It’s a small ministry in the Hill Country in which 90% of the staff are sexual assault survivors.

Mercy Gate Ministries

Entering the kitchen of a beautiful house is a group of women laughing and snacking on chips. They are sounds of joy.

It doesn’t look like a group of women who have been trafficked, but that’s what it is.

“I was trafficked as a young child. As a teenager, I got pregnant at a very early age, which led to a lot of trauma unresolved in my life. I was trafficked again when I was 29. It started as a relationship with someone that I thought I could trust,” said survivor Karla Solomon.

Longtime KSAT viewers might recognize Solomon and her awesome red hair.

KSAT interviewed her five years ago after she was rescued from a well-known trafficker who is now serving two 30-year sentences for crimes against people like Solomon.

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“It resulted in me experiencing attempted murder, starvation, drug abuse, physical, sexual, emotional abuse, all the above. In 2016, I was recovered from a hotel in Texas,” she said.

During that original interview, Solomon talked of a ministry she was helping start. It would be a safe haven in the Hill Country where trafficked women could heal.

They would name it Mercy Gate Ministries.

Solomon became emotional as she talked about being the first survivor ever cared for by this now-thriving program.

After going through the program herself, she began working for the ministry and is still there, helping garner international attention.

Survivors helped through Mercy Gate Ministries

Over the years, Solomon has been able to help dozens of women who live in the 12-bed residential treatment center while they undergo therapy.

“At the age of seven and 11, I was molested, which started a whole bunch of trauma and rebellion,” said survivor Ashlea Jones.

Jones was trafficked twice in her life for a total of over 10 years before Houston Police rescued her.

“It was come and go, come and go. I would get away, and I would go right back,” Jones said.

The other survivors understood why that happened and didn’t make her ashamed.

Trafficking survivors are abuse survivors, and statistics show that victims leave an average of five to seven times before actually being able to cut ties.

“Especially if they’re they’re very aggressive and abusive,” Jones said. “You know, he would tell me all the time — if I didn’t come back, ‘I would show up at your mom’s house or your grandma’s house.’ Knowing him, I wouldn’t put it past him. I have a scar on my lip because of leaving and going back and him retaliating.”

When she finally was able to break away, Jones landed at Mercy Gate, a place that was strange to her.

“(They wanted) to just love me and me to heal. I couldn’t comprehend that at first, and a lot of the times, it would cause me to want to pack my stuff and leave,” she explained.

When asked if it helped that the staff was full of survivors who understood her, she teared up and said, “Yes, it did. Karla is a big inspiration to me. I don’t want to cry, but me and Karla have known each other for a long time,” Jones said.

It was that survivor connection that made Jones want to stay.

She went through the whole program, which includes trauma therapy, lots of faith-based healing, art therapy, equine therapy, and strict schedules that teach the women accountability and responsibility.

“It was very, very helpful,” Jones said.

It was so helpful that Jones decided to work for Mercy Gate after finishing the program, passing on her healing to other women.

Last October, she left the ministry to get a full-time job she loves, and she’s been reunited with her kids.

Jones is getting everything back.

“All the things. It is very possible,” she said.

The program concept promotes true recovery, no matter how severe the trauma.

“I am a survivor of familial trafficking. It looks a little different than what you’ve seen with Karla and Ashlea,” said Lesley Lehrmann. “I was trafficked by my parents and stepfather. So everybody as a child that I should have looked to for love and protection violated me.”

Lehrmann found refuge in a different recovery program and worked there for six years, but when her journey brought her to the Hill Country, she found Mercy Gate and felt a calling.

She is now the restoration program director with a huge overseeing role.

“I develop the program. If there are things that aren’t working, I look for solutions,” Lehrmann said.

She oversees the program structure, the therapies, the training and schedules, and the disciplinary side.

“That is a unique challenge because you don’t want to re-traumatize someone, but you also want to hold them accountable to do what’s right,” Lehrmann said.

She has seen many women thrive and find a sense of normalcy and true happiness.

“My favorite part of what we do is the family piece, seeing women restored with their children,” Lehrmann said.

It’s a stressful process that, with the help of a fellow survivor, can be easier.

“I walked through reunification with my own children, and I’m able to offer them a lot of hope. I love working with CPS and the whole reunification process,” Lehrmann said.

The importance of survivor-led solutions goes far beyond the Mercy Gate home.

Improving solutions for survivors

Solomon works daily to make sure agencies, big and small, understand the survivor experience.

“Training, DPS, law enforcement, assisting with sting operations, training a lot of service providers on trauma-informed care, which is super important,” Solomon said.

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No matter how long agents or officers have been on the force, they can’t truly understand the mind of someone who’s been trafficked.

“Then you’re not going to be effective in how you’re going to approach them, interview them, assess them, or even how you’re able to connect them to the resources,” Solomon said.

She even partners with the judicial system.

“A lot of times, the women that we’ve helped in our program also have criminal charges, which are related or unrelated to their trafficking. We’re able to offer continued legal education credits for attorneys and judges or any judicial officials,” Solomon said.

Given Mercy Gate is a state-approved facility, its treatment program is an alternative for women looking at prison time.

“You need the expert in that field. So, to me, the survivors are the experts,” Solomon said.

They’re experts who also have to choose their own recovery every day.

Mercy Gate survivor staff members find that daily in their jobs.

“Watching their process helps me remember my process and sometimes gives me grace when I don’t hit the mark that I’m trying to hit,” Lehrmann said.

Lehrmann is deeply grateful for her newfound support system as someone whose family broke her heart.

“Mercy Gate is absolutely my family now. The staff that work here but also the women who come through the program — every one of them has a special place in my heart,” she said.

“I’ve never experienced the healthy side of life, like just people genuinely wanting to love you and care for you,” Jones said.

It’s a long-term recovery solution that works. The proof needs no explanation. All you have to do is peek into that kitchen filled with joy, redemption, and healing.

That success is why Mercy Gate Ministries is creating transitional housing for clients who finish the program but aren’t fully ready for independence or can’t afford the current expensive housing.

They have the land and have raised half of the money needed to build their 12-bed facility.

They have faith that they’ll soon be able to raise the rest so they can carry women through the last piece of their journey, not only to independence but to freedom.

Anyone who wants to help or learn more about the program can visit the Mercy Gate Ministries website.

For more information and stories about trafficking, including signs to spot it, head to KSAT’s trafficking webpage.

To find more Solutionaries stories that focus on solution-based reporting, head to KSAT’s Solutionaries webpage or the Solutionaries YouTube page, and subscribe.

About the Authors

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

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