265: Sustainable Housing, Aftercare, and Existing Resources with AVODAH Collective


Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by three speakers from the AVODAH Collective, an organization that is partnering with churches to create space for women survivors of sex trafficking, young people, and families to find restoration through trauma-informed aftercare. They all discuss ingredients of the “secret sauce” to sustainable housing and aftercare.


Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, RN, MBA, MTS
Delegate and Special Advisor to the Ambassador on Human Trafficking for the Order of Malta to the United Nations
Co-Founder of Global Strategic Operatives
Deb is a critical care nurse by training with a BSN, MBA and a Master’s in Theology with a concentration in bioethics. After working in healthcare and the private sector for 30+ years, she now concentrates in public, non-profit organizations, and philanthropy. She works in areas where she can combine her passion for healthcare, business and faith.
Keenan Fitzpatrick
Co-founder of the  AVODAH Collective
Keenan and his wife, Brianna,  live in Denver, Colorado with four children and a fifth on its way. After spending 8 years of fundraising work for catholic initiatives, including anti-human trafficking, Keenan and Brianna founded a 501c3, The AVODAH Collective, by acquiring land through impact investment to build its first location for care modeled after the Metanoia Manor of trauma informed care.
Sister Mary Anthony
Eucharistic Heart of Jesus Order in Lagos, Nigeria

Key Points

  • Shortage of beds makes long term housing and safe placement difficult for aftercare.
  • AVODAH Collective works with churches in the community to repurpose unused buildings as safe homes for survivors.
  • Churches are positioned in ideal locations with access to public transportation and safe communities.
  • Reintegration involves:
    • 12 to 24 month long-term housing
    • sustainable staff
    • free child care
    • stage 2, long-term independent housing


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 265 Sustainable Housing, Aftercare, and Existing Resources with AVODAH Collective.

Production Credits [00:00:11] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:37] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:39] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, today we have such a wonderful panel with us that is going to, I know, illuminate so many wonderful things that are happening with AVODAH and I’m so glad to introduce. We have three guests today, so I’m going to jump right in and actually share a bit about our guests. First of all, so glad to welcome Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski. Deb is a critical care nurse by training. After working in health care and the private sector for over 30 years, she now concentrates in public, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropy. She works in areas where she can combine her passion for health care, business, and faith. She’s the special advisor to the ambassador on human trafficking for the Order of Malta to the United Nations. I’m also glad to welcome Keenan Fitzpatrick to the show. Keenan and his wife, Brianna, live in Denver, Colorado, with four children, a fifth on the way. After spending eight years in fundraising work for anti-sex trafficking, Keenan and Brianna founded a 501(c)3, the AVODAH Collective, by acquiring land through impact investment to build its first location for care, modeled after the Metanoia Manor of trauma informed care. And I’m also so thrilled to welcome Sister Mary Anthony from the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus Order in Lagos, Nigeria. Welcome to all three of you to the show.

Deb [00:02:05] Thank you, Dave.

Sandie [00:02:06] Really good to have you here. And anybody who knows me knows collaboration is my favorite thing to talk about. So doing a panel from a collective seems like a dream. So I’m very excited. We’re going to start. I met Deb more than a decade ago doing a health care training out in New Hampshire, and Deb and I have stayed connected and collaborated as often as possible, so we share a unique concern about some of the challenges. So, Deb, what are the biggest obstacles in providing long-term housing and care?

Deb [00:02:56] Well, that’s a great question, Sandie. And what we learned after training so many health care providers–and their purpose was to train them how to identify potential victims and take appropriate action–was that once they were identified, there was what Homeland Security always said: there’s a desperate need for beds. What do you need? Beds, beds, and more beds. So if you identify and don’t have any beds or safe placement for these victims and to become survivors, well, they are just going to fall right back into and recycled back into the life. But this is very important, and it’s not just a national shortage of beds. It’s a worldwide shortage of beds. I’ll give you an example. When you and I first met ten years ago, there were six beds in all of New England. Six. Now there’s about, oh, 34 to 40, but that’s hardly enough when you see the numbers. So, not only is there a shortage of beds, but then the staff, you have a 4 to 12 average turnover every six to eight months. And then also 75 percent of the girls being trafficked in the U.S. come from the foster care system. That’s an important statistic. And then the last one I’ll give you is the six times higher rate of recidivism of a girl ending up in a short-term shelter rather than a long term. What I mean, if you place them right in a homeless shelter or something like that, those traffickers go right after the girls to get them back in the life. So for GSO, it was a natural progression, and I thank God that we, you know, God, put Keenan Fitzpatrick in my path and we were able to really complement each other, mine with the education and his forte with the safe homes. And that’s what really makes it a true continuum for health care and help for these poor souls that are caught in trafficking.

Sandie [00:04:56] So I’m going to turn to Keenan now because this idea of providing long term housing and care is so critical, but so challenging over and over again. I know people have big ideas. They have budgets that are so huge to raise the funds for the physical, to raise the funds to staff, and often face challenges of ever launching, ever getting off the ground. Or of sustaining the dreams and vision that they have. So Keenan, I am fascinated with the innovative solutions that you have been inspired to lead and your wife, Brianna. So tell us about how AVODAH Collective started.

Keenan [00:05:51] Yeah, thank you, Sandie. And, you know, after doing some work in fundraising and a little bit of rescue, I just like Deb learned that the biggest issue was sustainability with long term aftercare. There was some a wonderful act of providence that allowed me to meet a incredible group of religious sisters from the hospital of Sisters of Mercy. I shared with them a great call on my heart and a great desire to be able to provide care for these survivors. And they shared with me that they have been working at that time for about two years in Louisiana, caring for 13 minors who had been trafficked. And I was astounded, Sandie. The sisters were able to create a sustainability within the staff that no other organization had seen.

Sandie [00:06:42] Tell us why they were able to do that.

Keenan [00:06:45] Yeah. The sisters have made it very clear to all of us that, and I quote one of them, “I don’t care how much money you pay me. I would never do this work for a paycheck.” So the sisters are not doing this because it’s a job. They’re doing this because it’s a vocation. It’s a call. It’s a passion and it’s a purpose for their life. The sisters take three vows. They take a vow of poverty, of chastity, and obedience. All of those vows when they enter the convent, draw them to a place of service from a place of charity, not from a place of I have to do this or else I don’t get paid or I don’t have health insurance. They truly want to give of themselves. They want to serve with compassion and they want to bring those, the women of brokenness, to a place of healing. So I say there’s really two things from a faith perspective. These sisters, they have a lot of time built into their day for prayer and for reflection, and to draw from that source where they can then serve better. And the second is that they rely on each other. They have an incredibly strong bond, not only as friends, like coworkers can be friends, but more as sisters, as family. And so they’re able to serve from a depth that creates a sustainability and a longevity that that allows these women survivors to really understand that they are lovable, that they can be helped. Because when you see that that statistic that Deb shared that the 4 to 12 staff turning over every six to eight months, not only is it a financial and HR nightmare for the nonprofits, it also shows the survivors, not even the professionals can care for me.

Sandie [00:08:33] So then you’ve found an amazing. I think when we talked earlier that last week, we talked about the secret sauce of this amazing community and my background here in Orange County, everybody that listens regularly knows, I was the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force Administrator. And the Sisters of St. Joseph were among the very, very first to provide long-term, sustainable care for many of our survivors. But they had to have the right kind of facilities. So how did you get the land?

Keenan [00:09:18] Yeah. When we look at some of the strengths of specifically the Catholic Church, but on a more broad level, most Christian churches are very well positioned in different in almost all cities around the world with real estate that is not always productive or fully developed. So I’m talking about rectory or school buildings or baseball fields that are often positioned in very safe locations with easy access to public transportation. And the bishop or the local pastor are having a hard time filling that school or filling that parish. So, so the concept a couple of years ago was what if we actually start a relationship with some of these pastors and we work with them to repurpose those buildings to become safe homes for these women? You know, when you when you look at convents, Sandie, the convents are a perfect safe home. There is an industrial kitchen, there’s individual bedrooms and bathrooms, there’s beautiful gardens, and they’re often situated in very safe locations. So in trying to address that need of real estate, we, Deb and I started looking into different dioceses that we had connections with. Currently, our 24 sisters that went through a very intense training are now doing 30 to 90 day internships in five different dioceses in five different states across the US. So, we’re really able to leverage some of the strengths of the physical assets of different churches to provide spiritual renovation and healing for these women.

Sandie [00:10:51] So this way of repurposing property, is this a replicatable model?

Keenan [00:11:00] Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think first and foremost, what’s needed is a strong relationship and level of trust with the organization that wants to do something and the pastor or the diocese or the larger church entity that are in the receiving side. But drive around, you can’t go a mile without seeing multiple churches and buildings. Not all of them are full. Not all of them are being utilized to their full potential. And when you look at an issue as big as human trafficking, we have to be thinking bigger about how to solve it. It can’t just be a one off, here’s a home in one place and we’re doing good there. Now that’s wonderful. And thank you everybody who’s doing that. But this needs to be something that we can not only take nationally but internationally. And when you look in Europe, oh my goodness, the amount of church assets, physical assets that are sitting around empty. It’s thousands and thousands of beds that could be provided for women survivors. Pair that up with the unbelievable service that these religious sisters provide. You have, we do believe a secret sauce to be able to really make a big impact in this field.

Sandie [00:12:11] So this is replicatable and it isn’t just the beds. I mean, sometimes we count census, but it’s that home environment. It is, it’s their, becomes their home, their community as well. And I think in the past, I can go back and post some links, we’ve talked about how churches often they have educational classrooms that can be used after school to teach internet safety. There’s lots of ways to look at what your community’s resources are to see where they fit in the anti-trafficking space of prevention and aftercare and reintegration opportunities. Keenan, can you talk about how the reintegration part of this works?

Keenan [00:13:04] Well, I think that Deb mentioned a really important, important figure in that there’s a six times higher rate of recidivism when a girl ends up in a short term shelter versus a long term care facility. With our homes and with the organizations that we are partnering our 24 sisters with, we are seeking to have the survivors remain with us for 12 to 24 months. Now, 12 to 24 months is a long time for them to, first of all, rest and recover and feel like they’re safe and their loved. Sister is going to talk more about the service of compassion that they bring, they’re the mother, the mentor, and the friend to these women. From there, they’re able to then step into that process of job services and further education and to learn a trade and to learn what it means to have dignified work again. You know, another one of our focuses is that we want to be able to serve these survivors who have who are either pregnant or have infants. So we’re able to provide child care with the sisters being on site and in the homes. And that allows the women a little bit more freedom to be able to go out and find that job and to work without having the financial burden of having to pay for daycare so that that reintegration, and we really see this from the model of Metanoia Manor down in Louisiana, is really best accomplished when there is a longer term stay and that longer term stay is really only achievable when the real estate is easily accessible and the sustainability of the sisters loving presence is able to take its full effect.

Sandie [00:14:43] So how do you train everybody? Because I’ve had so many people, they want to volunteer. And so that sounds a little bit like this. You have people who are already interested and care, and now you have unpaid staff, but how do you qualify them? I notice that your model is trauma informed.

Keenan [00:15:08] Yeah. Well, I think maybe there’s two two things here. First of all, the sisters receive a full week of training on sex trafficking 101 and culturation into America. They learn from different survivors, and then they also learn from the sisters down in Louisiana who have been doing this work for four years. The most important piece of that training is really that all the sisters receive the highest level of trauma certification of TBRI. So we work with the state, with the governor’s Office of Texas, who brought in TBRI instructors to bring all 24 sisters through a three day TBRI training. Each of our homes is overseen by a clinical director who is an LPC. And we also have a program director in each home. When we look at volunteers coming in, every volunteer that’s actually going to interact with the survivors has to go through the local superior of the sister, as well as the clinical director and the program director to receive a level of training that would make it healthy and appropriate for them to be involved.

Sandie [00:16:12] So, Mary Anthony, can you tell us a little bit about how you became involved in this effort? And then I’m going to ask you what you’ve learned since you’ve been in it?

Mary Anthony [00:16:24] Thank you very much for the question. It’s an interesting one. Right from Nigeria, before we came in, we are told of what you are going to do in the US. And then a little bit of training has been given, like one of my sister has involved and then for three and half years immediately before we all came down to this place. We have four EHJ sisters, Eucharistic Heart  of Jesus sisters now in Denver to work with Mr. Kenney in our home here and for the folks when we arrived here, we are to Louisiana. Like Mr. Kenney has already said, a lot of people came in who are really involved. We are really people that has this problem of sex trafficking and all the rest of them. They came in to teach us with one good week. We have seminars, we have workshops, interaction with them and with this statement and more. So we’re able to do a lot of things within this one week, and we are very happy to have such a training. After that, we had another training when we came in here at Denver where we training for another one whole day. So it really intensified all that we got in and iterates. And since we came in, we’ve been going for one workshop or the other. So it has been very helpful. And then we look forward to really what we need people to give them the really support they need to know that God loves them. And we, as female, we love them too, and the human being created in the image and likeness of God. So we need to work together to show them love, how to pray, how to work, and to know that God is with it

Sandie [00:18:18] I love hearing your passion, Sister Mary Anthony, and I love this model. I believe you currently have 25 sisters working in six different cities, and the concept of bringing everyone here where you have all of the training is a very innovative approach. We often go places. I’ve been on so many planes and I go, I went to Zambia to work with the sisters there and do training. And this idea of bringing them here where you have all of the teachers ready and then sending them out, that’s a great model that is replicatable as well. Thank you so much, sister. It’s so reassuring to know that there’s going to be somebody there that stays there. It’s the same person and it’s not constant transition. And then there’s phase two of the AVODAH program with the health clinic and housing, Keenan or Deb, can you give us just a little glimpse of what that’s going to look like?

Deb [00:19:35] Sure, Sandie. I’ll start and Keenan, you can chime in at the end or finish what I miss. You know, we have, I just want to back up for a second. Everybody that goes into one of these homes will have completed training, and anybody who wishes to go into these homes will be vetted carefully and trained. And this is important. This is very important for the victims to become on their journey to survivors. Things can be triggered and they, well-intentioned people can do more harm than good if they’re not trained properly. So everybody will be trained. And as far as phase two, we really, this is the first phase of getting the sisters here and getting them the safe homes that have been identified up and running. Keenan mentioned the program director and the clinical director. I’m working right now with the Academy of Forensic Nursing, specifically Pat Speck who’s the president, and she is went graciously and generously went to the training and taught about trauma informed care. She’s going to help us with the clinical director role, as well as potentially bringing in nurse practitioners to be assigned to these residents of each of the homes. And then this phase two really talks about, you know, when we have this, these models down very well and doing well, we’ll be able to identify more. As you were saying, is it replicable? Absolutely. I mean, the problem isn’t going to be finding the homes. We, there’s plenty of those available. And then the sisters, they seem to be even more. They hear about it more and we’re going to have another training with Filipinos and more sisters. That seems to be going well. And then when we really figure out the transition, so we’ll be, I know Keenan and I have talked about this, but you know, there will be certain apartment buildings that will be close by the safe home, but they’ll be able to start, you know, learning the trade and putting into practice and having the money to be able to afford to stay on their own. So that may take sooner for some and longer for others. But that’s going to be that phase two. So we’re excited. We’re excited about this phase one and really perfecting it. So we will be able to replicate it and move on and improve many, many more lives.

Sandie [00:22:12] Thank you, Deb. I was fascinated and really encouraged when I saw and heard from you in our conversations. The concept of compassionate and supportive housing. We hear about how important it is for us to have supportive housing, but bringing the sisters into this. And there are so many different communities that are part of the listening audience for the Ending Human Trafficking podcast that can transfer this model to your faith community, where you can bring the same kind of innovative secret sauce for repurposing things we already have for creating new avenues for people who are already part of our community. And this last piece of reintegration, developing that phase two long-term transitional with mentorship and in your literature, it says friendship. And I have to say I began in anti-human trafficking with the concept that I had something that I wanted to pass on to survivors, that mentorship piece. And now my life is richer because I’ve moved into the friendship space. And it is a mutual relationship. These are my friends and that is key to that lasting reintegration. Deb and Keenan, can you give us your website?

Deb [00:23:55] Sure. Mine is globalstrategicoperatives.org. Thank you, Sandie.

Keenan [00:24:02] Yeah. And ours is avodahcollective.org. A-V-O-D-A-H collective.org.

Sandie [00:24:07] Thank you so much, Keenan, for joining us. Thank you, Deb. Thank you, especially Sister Mary Anthony. I also want to leave a link in the show notes to episode 239, where we interviewed Luke de Pulford and the Arise Foundation Tove van Lennep. And in that episode, the rise of prevention and the role of the faith-based community research that shows the impact that what the AVODAH Collective is doing is having a profound impact on communities here in the U.S., where I am, and globally, where many of our listeners are. Thank you so much.

Dave [00:24:58] Thank you all for your time today. We’re inviting you, of course, to take a few minutes to visit the website. All of the links we’ve mentioned today will be up on the website, as always. Also, you may want to when you’re online, download a copy of Sandie’s guide, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’s absolutely free. It’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandie’s identified in her work through the Global Center for Women and Justice that you should know before you join the fight against trafficking. You can get access to all of that by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. It’s also a wonderful place to find more information about the Anti-Human Trafficking Certificate program here at Vanguard University, again at endinghumantrafficking.org, and we will be back in two weeks for our next conversation. Thanks, Sandie. Thanks, everybody.

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