From the time she was young, Annalisa Gibbs wanted to run a residential home to help people in need. And growing up in Thailand, she saw how human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation damaged women and girls.
But it wasn’t until 2019 that she connected the two, establishing the nonprofit Eden’s Farm — a home in Pittsburgh that can shelter six women for three-month or 12-month stays. The site also runs a peer support group that meets on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. and a drop-in center that’s open on Saturdays from 2-8 p.m. (or by appointment), offering meals, internet or phone access, a food pantry and a free clothing store, showers and holistic therapies.
Eden’s Farm provides preventative training and education to young people about human trafficking and the commercial sex trade. As executive director, Gibbs takes a hands-on role in offering support to both those who escape the sex industry and those who are still in it, noting that they’re all survivors in a sense.
“You don’t know the number of women that are still in it; it’s hard to grasp,” says Gibbs. “But I also feel that people don’t self-identify, and usually they don’t know what’s going on. They’re doing what they have to do to survive, or they’re in love with their trafficker.”
In a new pilot program, Eden’s Farm is partnering with Allegheny Health Network’s Women’s Behavioral Health to provide survivors of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation with intensive outpatient psychological care. A $25,000 grant from Staunton Farm Foundation will support the pilot.
Dr. Sarah Homitsky, a psychiatrist and medical director of Women’s Behavioral Health, says the partnership is a natural one.
“Drawing from our intensive outpatient model, with its emphasis on learning to manage painful emotions, identify patterns of negative thinking, effectively communicate and solve problems, will help empower these individuals to move forward into the future,” she says.
Staunton Farm Foundation considers it a “pivotal effort,” says Joni Schwager, the foundation’s executive director. “It is a privilege to support the development of a multidisciplinary clinic inclusive of psychiatric and behavioral health services that can help transform unimaginable agony and abuse into hope and dignity.”
Eden’s Farm does have a licensed clinical social worker on its team, but some survivors may need more than just a once-a-week therapy session, Gibbs says.
“What’s really exciting is that I’ve researched around the country and there isn’t an intensive outpatient program that’s designed specifically for survivors of sex trafficking. This is one of a kind,” she says. “It’s difficult to find mental health therapists in general now, especially post-Covid, and on top of that, to find a therapist who is equipped to work with trafficking survivors is more difficult.”
For a trauma therapist to successfully work with such women, she says, requires knowing the language of their way of life and being aware of the culture and subcultures in trafficking, especially the subcultures of various ethnicities.
“Somebody who’s trafficked in a massage parlor, who’s Asian, is going to look different than somebody who was trafficked out of foster care,” Gibbs says. “Those nuances — trafficking survivors don’t all look the same, so you need the knowledge, awareness, the background.”
Gibbs, 39, a married mother of five boys ages 5 through 11, came by this knowledge in a roundabout manner. Trained as a pastry chef, she stopped working in commercial kitchens when she began having children because the long hours weren’t compatible with caring for babies. She’s currently in nursing school with the goal of going into forensic nursing.
Her upbringing in Thailand had “planted a seed” of interest, she says, and she had volunteered with organizations that reached out to women and girls needing help. Her husband Jim, CEO of Pittsburgh-based tech company MeterFeeder, gave his full support to the idea of founding Eden’s Farm. He is now on the organization’s board.
“We’re both very ambitious and I think, in his words, he said he didn’t want to play life on easy mode, just sit back and let things go by and not do anything about it, if we have the energy to do it, if we have the compassion and the wherewithal to do it,” Gibbs says.
Incorporating Eden’s Farm just before Covid hit didn’t slow them down, Gibbs says. “Oddly enough, the pandemic had to propel us to move faster. We were doing strip club outreach at that point and the clubs closed and all the women couldn’t apply for rental assistance because they couldn’t prove loss of income. So we got a grant for rental assistance and were able to help some families.”
Eden’s Farm still does outreach, including some online by utilizing software that scrapes escort websites for phone numbers. “We reach out to folks and say we’re an organization that provides resources to those who are impacted by the sex industry, just to see if we can chat,” she says. “There’s a mix of people who [respond] because there’s a lot of distrust, and sometimes people think that it may be an undercover cop. However, we’ve been able to help people.”
Eden’s Farm also partners with the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law. Together they work to improve the legal system’s response to commercial sexual exploitation, to support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable.
“Women who are being trafficked, they’re not criminals,” Gibbs says. “Under federal law, they’re protected. So definitely if somebody were to want law enforcement to be contacted, we have relationships. … If people are continuing to be in the sex industry, we can provide resources as well. You don’t have to be out to get the resources.”
She emphasizes that “people need to understand why people go into the sex industry to begin with: usually poverty, or childhood traumas, foster care survival. Really, you come down between a bad choice and a bad choice.”
While at Eden’s Farm, women can learn the basics of functioning in society while rebuilding their lives. The residential home operates on donations and grants, with staff on site. All furniture and bedding are provided, and a partnership with 412 Food Rescue helps to supply food.
“We are a supportive home — we act as support for women who live in the home as housemates. It’s their home; we are just the support, whether it’s coming up with a plan to get your driver’s license or taking you to therapy. We have curriculum, work in the home where they learn topics such as boundaries, what is sexual exploitation, what trafficking is, and financial knowledge and education on other subjects,” says Gibbs.
“We do fun things, too, like berry picking, or walking in the park, bike riding, art therapy and baking on Fridays. We believe in providing autonomy because if we don’t, how are we different [from what they’ve gone through]?”
The Friday baking sessions are a way for Gibbs to spend time with the women and share her talents as a pastry chef. “I figured that it would be a gift we could incorporate that’s unique,” she says.
As she has learned about human trafficking and commercial sex exploitation over the years, Gibbs still recalls the things she saw as a young girl as the sex trade continued to flourish in Thailand even after U.S. servicemen left when the Vietnam War ended.
“It really hit home for me,” she says. “I think the more I learned about it, the more layers were being peeled back and more connections and parallels were being made. I feel like I was called to do it, and this is my purpose.”