Teen girls who faced sexual exploitation find safety at HOME

Marcy Markusa, host of CBC's Information Radio program, sees what a safe place looks like to six formerly sexually exploited aboriginal teens in Winnipeg.

Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre creates place for girls who cannot find safety in Winnipeg

"This is the safest place for the young women who are coming to Hands of Mother Earth for their own safety and protection," said Josie McKay.

That safe space is designed specifically for aboriginal girls who have been sexually exploited, some of them from as early as 10 years old.

The haven is meant to shield another generation from becoming the missing and murdered women of tomorrow. 

These girls are sent to the Hands of Mother Earth centre, or "HOME" as they call it, because they can't escape those that threaten them within the Winnipeg city boundaries. 

The rural healing lodge is run by the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, which translates from Ojibway to mean ''we all work together to help one another." HOME provides that help to some teen girls when they need it the most.

Listen live to Information Radio's on-site broadcast from Win Gardner Place in Winnipeg and hear Marcy's full story at 7:45 a.m.

They've been 'extremely traumatized'

McKay, who is a site manager at HOME, has been there for two years and works closely with the six girls who are currently living in the remote refuge.

"It's meant to get the feeling of returning back to the land. If you can imagine girls coming in at 13, 14, 15, by the time they come to us they've been extremely traumatized, they've been sexually exploited, many of them for many years — and this is their break away from all of it," McKay explained.

McKay does everything in her power not to be someone that lets the girls down.

While addresses of safe houses in cities often become public knowledge, HOME's location remains secret, as does the identity of the girls living there, so that their predators can no longer threaten or harm them.

The girls who live at the centre are between the ages of 13 and 16, but McKay explains that they experience lagging development.

"The day the trauma started, that's normally when they stop growing," McKay said.

The rooms look like those of any other teenage girl: pink paint, fish tanks and artwork. From the surface, you wouldn't know the horrors the inhabitants of those rooms had been through.

McKay says in terms of how long the girls stay there, it varies. It could be a few weeks, it could be multiple years.

"We're still connected with all the girls that have been here and moved on," McKay said. She herself goes on monthly lunches with the the girls that have left HOME.

Finding a home

McKay spends a lot of time with the girls at HOME, she tells Marcy how that impacts her.

Since the girls are all school-aged, their programming includes school. Their other daily programming includes everything from an evening where they talk about addictions, to organized dinners, to group fitness.

Diane Redsky, executive director of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre Inc., explains that it is hard to find the right people to work in a centre such as HOME.

"We do need highly trained staff, but we also make sure we have experiential women," Redsky said. "We do the training on an ongoing basis because things change out there."

Creating a future

Schooling is a part of the programming provided at the centre.

CBC's Information Radio host Marcy Markusa toured the facility herself, as she wanted to know what it was like to be with one of these girls when the force of everything they had been through hit them.

"It's difficult. You just have to be present and really just listen to them and help them move forward, and accept that horrible things happen but it doesn't define you," McKay said.

"It's different for each girl. Like, we have one that's been here for a year and she's just starting to show emotions. Within the past month. Before, you would never see emotions from her. Within the past month, a few times, she just asked me for a hug and just cried and said, 'I'm not ready to let go yet.' And you just hold her. It's coming a little at a time. Then you have some where they will just spill it and explode…. Totally differs for each girl."

The centre houses six girls and costs Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata $800,000 each year to run it but to these girls, it means the world to them.

"We still have one youth that will not go to sleep unless someone is sitting at her doorway," McKay said, "just to make sure that she is safe."