By Belle Vang, COSS Communications Student Assistant
Growing up in the Central Valley, Debra Rush wanted the same things many other young girls did: a boyfriend, good friends, and tons of fun. She never anticipated that those simple desires would take a turn for the worst when she was kidnapped and forced into human trafficking as a teenager right here in the Central Valley.
Debra survived years of guilt, shame, and emotional abuse, but in the face of it all, she never lost sight of her goal of a different life. She began her path towards healing by opening a community-benefit organization for survivors of human trafficking, Breaking the Chains, nearly a decade later.
Author Penelope Childers retired from a career in the federal government and began writing feel-good, short stories in popular books such as Chicken Soup for the Soul in 2010. However, through meeting Debra, Penelope quickly found her niche in collaborating to write the stories of individuals who’ve encountered unimaginable struggles and used unquenchable courage to overcome them.
Despite being two very different people from two very different worlds, their paths crossed at a small coffee shop when Debra boldly requested that Penelope write her story. Debra’s story was so different from Penelope’s past work, and she admitted that at first she was judgmental and had little interest in writing it.
“I told [Debra] that I would call her on the first of the following year, but I did not call her,” Penelope revealed. “I saw her again in July of the following year. She came up to me, and she said, ‘I thought you were going to write my story. I thought you were going to help me.'”
Even after their second encounter, Penelope hesitated, still citing she had other projects she was working on. Penelope confessed to using other projects as an excuse to hide her disinterest in writing Debra’s heart-wrenching story.
It wasn’t until a close friend asked Penelope to participate in volunteer work for women transitioning out of prison that Penelope would get her first exposure to people who defied social stigmas. At first, Penelope was hesitant to visit the women’s prison in Chowchilla, California, but once there, she began to meet women who would shift her perspective on people and writing.
“I gave a class to eight women, and only one of them had finished high school,” Penelope recalled. “But let me tell you this: some of the women I’ve met in prison are the most awesome people I’ve ever met.”
Soon, Penelope became good friends with the women in Chowchilla and looked forward to her visits, where she would hear their stories and learn the reasons they were incarcerated. She found herself intrigued with their lives and shared the opportunity Debra had proposed a year before.
Soon after, with the support and influence of her incarcerated friends, Penelope decided to write Debra’s story.
The first time Debra and Penelope met to discuss their book, Debra told Penelope that she was going to share stories with Penelope that she had never told anyone before. After sharing her stories, Debra took a deep breath and told Penelope that she felt a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. The collaboration of Debra and Penelope created the opportunity for survivors of human trafficking in the Central Valley to share their stories in Debra and Penelope’s book, A Cry of the Heart: Human Trafficking, One Survivor’s True Story.
“It’s important that people are aware of trafficking,” Penelope explained. “There is one message we wanted to get out of [the book]: no one is beyond redemption.”
To learn more about their work and meet them, we invite you to attend our COSS Speaker Series on September 10 at 6 p.m. in the Henry Madden Library room 2206. This event is open to the public, so please feel free to invite your friends and family. Debra, Penelope, and the COSS look forward to seeing you there!
Breaking the Chains
btcfresno.org | Facebook @breakingthechainsfresno | Twitter @BTCFresno
penelopechilders.com | Facebook @AuthorPenelopeChilders