We recently introduced you to talented illustrator and comic-maker Colleen Clark through her “Feminist Barbie Collection.” In checking out some of her other work, we fell in love with this awesome piece, which Colleen told us she was inspired to draw after learning about Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), an organization we are so grateful to now know because of the work they do and the extraordinary woman behind it.
GEMS is the only organization in New York State specifically designed to serve girls and young women (ages 12–24) who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. It was founded in 1998 by then 23-year-old Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation herself, who was determined to help other young girls escape “the life.” She got GEMS off the ground from her kitchen table with nothing more than $30 and a borrowed computer, and, over the last 17 years, has grown it into a nationally recognized and acclaimed organization, one of the largest in the U.S. providing these critical services.
“A little while ago I watched the documentary Very Young Girls that educated me and made me extremely passionate about GEMS. The documentary focused on the wonderful work this organization does,” Colleen shared. “I was moved to do an illustration showing how much a young woman who is safe can accomplish in terms of her own self-worth.”
Colleen’s beautiful art caused us to want to know more about Rachel and the important work she does through GEMS, and what we learned is nothing short of inspiring.
After enduring unthinkable abuse for most of her young life and then making her own brave escape, British-born Rachel came to the U.S. in 1997 as a missionary to work with incarcerated adult women exiting the commercial sex industry. But she quickly realized that there was an overwhelming need for services targeting girls and young women at risk for sexual exploitation. Not only were they being ignored by traditional social service agencies, they were being stigmatized and punished by service providers, law enforcement, the courts, their families and society.
It was painfully obvious to Rachel that specialized services were critical for this disenfranchised population, and it’s what drove her to start Girls Educational & Mentoring Services.
Today, through programming that is gender responsive, trauma informed, developmentally grounded, strengths based, social justice oriented, and culturally competent, Rachel’s GEMS is changing lives, transforming public perception, and revolutionizing the systems and policies that impact commercially sexually exploited girls and young women.
Her courageous advocacy ensured the passage of New York State’s Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Act, which in 2008 became the first law in the nation to protect and not punish trafficked and exploited youth. Since then, 13 other states have followed suit.
In addition to co-producing Very Young Girls, the documentary (watch the trailer below) that influenced Colleen’s “I Am:” illustration, Rachel is also the author of the critically acclaimed Girls Like Us, and continues to use her unique voice to advocate for survivors at the White House, the United Nations, and before Congress.