Meet the advocates who help trafficking victims rebuild their lives
The basics: Melissa Gomez, 36, is the program manager of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking project. She has been married for 13 years and is a mother of two boys, ages 6 and 9.
What she does: Gomez began her work to end human trafficking in 2002. When she moved to Fresno in 2013, she joined Fresno EOC a year later. She and her team – a case manager, a few part-time employees and a handful of advocates from other agencies – manage hundreds of sex and labor trafficking cases. The goal of their services is to provide victims with any help they may need: a meal; a place to sleep; legal assistance or a full-on recovery program. Since 2016, she gives a stuffed holiday stocking to each victim as well. She said, this year, 75 survivors and their families received stockings. “It’s a really special time for individuals to pass on the holiday spirit and bring joy to people,” Gomez said.
Why she does it: The biggest reason, she said, was because her grandmother was a survivor of domestic violence. “My grandmother was really just a story of resilience, courage and strength to me.” She also credits the years of international volunteer work in Mexico, Amsterdam and the Philippines. “We had a speaker come in and speak to the youth,” she said of her time in Tijuana. She said the speaker discussed sex and generational slavery in India. “I was so impacted by that specific speaker and by the work they did in that community that I ended up getting involved.”
A special moment: Gomez had the opportunity to work with the International Organization for Migration to facilitate a reunion of a family and a person who was being trafficked internationally. “This individual hadn’t seen his family in years … and we were able to receive the family with this individual at the Fresno International Airport.” She said being able to witness someone go from a place of “modern day slavery” to having their life back again, “it was just a really beautiful moment.”
Details, details: After a three-month internship in the Philippines, she said she could “never look back” – knowing she needed to make it her life’s mission to turn victims into survivors. “Many of the girls I worked with had been recruited from small villages in rural communities and promised a better life,” she said. “Some of them [families] had given their daughters up so that their sons could go to school.” Now, Gomez has is also involved in the Central Valley Justice Coalition, a faith-based nonprofit, as an advisory board member, and is the chair of the Central Valley Freedom Coalition, a multidisciplinary approach that works with local law enforcement.
What others say: “Melissa has raised the level of services in our community for victims in incredible ways,” said Jessica Pittman, who has known Gomez since she was about 8 years old. They also co-directed the Central Valley Justice Coalition together for a year. “She has leveraged resources to bring safety, peace and restoration to those who have gone through extreme and complex trauma,” Pittman said. Pitmann said Gomez and her team create “a safe and calming environment that enables a person to break free and step into healing.”
How you can help: For the Stockings for Survivors holiday drive, residents can donate stocking stuffers. For the rest of the year, Gomez said giving can be as simple as gift cards for fast-food restaurants, Walmart or Target. Clothes can be donated to Neighborhood Thrift in the Tower District. Gomez also asks the community to report anything in regards to labor or human trafficking to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or text HELP to 233733. She encourages the community to join in on the 9th Annual Human Trafficking Conference is on March 20, 2018.