By Cheryl Conway
The community is invited to learn about and support a new non-profit organization to help provide a safe dwelling for women who have been victims of sexual exploitation.
Come spend the afternoon on Sat., June 24, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. for Health, Wellness, Nutrition at Healing Path Massage Therapy and Spa in Long Valley. All proceeds will benefit Zera House, a faith based organization that will provide a home for women who need to experience healing after being rescued from the horrors of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Healing Path Massage Therapy and Spa will not charge an entrance fee but proceeds for services will go toward Zera House. Participants can get a massage for $1 per minute; and a 10 minute skin care analysis for $5. For those who want to enroll in any Isagenix system- which includes solutions to weight loss, energy, performance, healthy aging and wealth creation- 50 percent of the referral bonus will go toward Zera House.
There will be refreshments, Isagenix samplings, music and a special presentation from Ariel Wagner, co-founder, director and C.E.O. of Zera House.
Wagner, 35, of Phillipsburg, co-founded Zera House in Dec. 2015 along with her friend Katie Van Gorp of Atlanta, Ga. For extra support, they partnered with School For Life in West Virginia as well as support from the church community.
The motivation behind the organization began eight years ago when Wagner was first introduced to the concept of humans being trafficked, sexually exploited and sold into slavery, she explains. In Feb. 2012, she went on a two week mission to Thailand with a non-profit group that rescues children- Remember Nhu- and worked with orphanages with 75 children aged two to 18 targeted for such abuse.
The purpose of her trip was to help with programs and projects such as music lessons and exercise classes, and to go into villages of local Thai women to see if children were at risk of being sold into slavery for child prostitution. If she found any in an unstable environment, they were removed and brought to a safe home.
“This just grieved my heart for so long,” says Wagner, who decided to share her vision with Van Gorp to establish a refuge in the mountains to help women heal.
Wagner had been working for ten years as a massage therapist in Phillipsburg, from 2007-2017, when she says “I was called to do this, to do Zera House. “The lord gave me this vision.”
After being in a “bad relationship” for almost three years, that had involved sexual, mental and emotional abuse, Wagner had to go through her own healing before realizing the need for Zera House, she says.
“I came out of my own abusive situation and said I want to help others heal too,” says Wagner.
Zera means seed in Hebrew, hence the name of Zera House, which translates into the hope ‘to plant seeds into their hearts and souls so they are equipped to live out their purposes of their lives.”
The program is faith based, with a holistic approach involving sustainable living practices.
“We at Zera house have a passion for helping women who have been subject to the horrors of human trafficking & sexual exploitation,” as stated as its mission. “We have a home where these women can come and heal. Our mission is to share the love, hope and grace of our loving father in heaven.”
In Aug. 2016, Zera House was given a physical house in the mountains in McDowell County, West Virginia, a poverty-stricken area compared to that of a third-world country, describes Wagner, with drugs and prostitution, sewage under homes and no-running water.
The house, which will be able to help four to five women at a time, is being renovated and is expected to open by the end of this summer, she says.
Since April, Wagner has been living in a loft in a large school with many rooms to board women, whether for a week, month or year. The school has been provided by School for Life, an organization that contacted Wagner through her church, The Chapel of Warren Valley in Washington, where Wagner’s parents are members.
At that church, volunteers got involved with Jersey Crew, a dedicated group that visits that impoverished area of West Virginia at least five times a year to help with repairs and construction. When her mom told the founder at the School for Life about her daughter’s idea about Zera House, he said “this is where she needs to be.”
Wagner says, “I came here to visit; when I first got here I said ‘I can’t do this. It’s very sad, very poor area. I knew this was going to be the first area to have our home.”
She so far has a nine year old in her care, given to her by the child’s guardian after the child was taken from the mother who was involved in prostitution; as well as a 35-year old woman who was homeless and involved in drugs and prostitution.
“I am helping her stay off the streets, stay out of trouble and go through the healing process emotionally,” says Wagner. “She’s doing very well,” and just graduated from nursing classes.
“The house is equipped with all that it needs to support Zera House including room to house the women and to garden and live sustainable and a community where they can learn to work and go to school,” as stated in materials provided by Wagner. “There women will receive counseling, building necessary life skills, volunteer in the community, learn about sustainable living and more. The main goal is to equip women with the skills, community and personal resolve they need to function adaptively in society without returning to exploitive industries.”
Once women are in her care for up to a year, her plan is to provide transitional housing by putting them up in apartments and teaching them about budgeting, balancing a checkbook and grocery shopping.
“Some may not have a high school diploma; we will help them get their GED’s. Helping them find what they love and turn it onto a career,” is her plan. Also to keep them close “so they can be mentored; they need that accountability still.”
In her first project, Wagner is working to get women off the streets from all over the country. She is working with four organizations and volunteers helping her locate these women and provide transportation to Zera House.
She has also hired a certified counselor to provide in depth therapy to her clients. Money to pay for utilities as well as repairs, maintenance, food, groceries and services to the residents will come from fundraisers and donations, she says.
A dinner benefit held March 2 at The Farmhouse at the Grand Colonial in Hampton to raise awareness about Zera House provided $20,000 as seed money.
“We thought it would be five years to open our first home,” says Wagner. Instead it’s taking only two years since incorporated.
While children being trafficked is just as disturbing, Wagner decided to help women 18 years old and up first since “there is not enough” organizations out there that provide such a service.
“We want a program established and strong before we take on children,” says Wagner.
She shares some statistics based on research by the N.J. Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
“Sex exploitation and trafficking of men, women and children is a $32 billion industry in the world, more than Nike, Coca Cola and Google combined. The U.S. holds $9.5 billion of that; N.J is number seven in the country when it comes to sex trafficking.
“Human trafficking is the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, after drug smuggling and arms dealing; 80 percent of slaves today are used for sex.
“The average age of a teen who enters the sex trade in the U.S. is 12 to 14 years old. Many victims are runaway girls who were sexually abused as children.”
The community can help by donating funds, as well as gardening tools and volunteering their time.
“If this is something that tugs at their heart, they can partner financially,” says Wagner. “If they want to volunteer a talent or craft, they are welcome to come,” like makeup artists to help women with their makeup, or those who make jewelry or scarves, or those who just want to visit to have tea with the women.
For more information, visit www.zerahouse.org. To donate or volunteer, contact Wagner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Ultimately, I believe I want to live out the purpose of my life that’s helping others,” concludes Wagner. “This demographic has grieved my heart for so long. Instead of watching it happen, I want to do something about it. These women are so broken. I believe it is my calling to piece these women back together and become whole again.”