The following is a feature of a woman who has overcome the most difficult of circumstances. Rather than let those difficult times ruin her life, she chose to use her past to impact the world around her for good. We hope her story will serve to inspire you the way it inspired us!
Carissa Phelps had a lot of slumber parties growing up. But these overnighters weren’t the kind we might imagine, full of gigglefests with girlfriends, pillow fights, and late-night movies coupled with salty popcorn and sugary sodas. Instead, for years Carissa found herself shuffled between friends’ houses, always attempting to escape the wrath of her abusive stepfather and her impoverished home. Her family life was incredibly dysfunctional, and Carissa sought refuge with the families of her friends. Her mother viewed these sleepovers, these “escapes,” as Carissa’s attempt to run away, so she simply dropped her daughter off at Fresno County Juvenile Hall, 70 miles from home. This, to Carissa, felt like the beginning of the end.
Carissa felt lost, displaced, and confused as she was shuttled from one group home to another. She continually ran away from the homes and facilities she was placed in, eventually ending up on the streets at the astonishingly young age of 12. She remembers the day that she was picked up by her first pimp, a man three times her age who offered her something to eat and drink. From then on, Carissa was exploited and trafficked, a real life modern-day slave in northern California’s prostitution ring.
Life on the streets was dark, disgusting, and, sometimes, deathly. Carissa found herself once again in a county institution, this time after she stole a car at age 13. She was placed in a rehabilitative center where she received group therapy. Carissa felt that she was at her lowest point; there seemed to be no hope. That is, until, a counselor took a vested interest in her. Ron Jenkins encouraged Carissa to return to school; he could see the potential she had as well as the intelligence she possessed. It took much time for Carissa to heal but one day, she, too, could see that she had a bright future ahead of her. She had a story to tell. She just needed the platform to share it.
Carissa went to school and just as her counselor anticipated, she excelled. She proceeded on to college, and she graduated summa cum laude from California State University Fresno. But her educational path didn’t stop there. Carissa then earned a law degree from UCLA’s School of Law as well as an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. She hoped to utilize her skills to empower others and act as an advocate on behalf of the 15,000 people trafficked within the U.S. each year. And Carissa knew that there was one place in particular where she had to go to share her story to help end the cycle of modern-day trafficking—Fresno, the very place where her story began.
Carissa served as a crisis counselor and a mentor for troubled teens. She advocated on behalf of runaway and homeless children, many of who would turn to prostitution if no one could rescue them from their desperate situations, just as she had done. Carissa’s story was turned into a self-titled award-winning documentary produced by filmmaker David Sauvage. Carissa penned her memoir, a powerful reflection titled Runaway Girl. She continued sharing her story through interviews and testimonies.
If you stumbled into Carissa at a restaurant or in the grocery store, you might easily walk past her, for she appears to be like any other person—a happy, healthy, contributing member of society. And that’s her point—she is the face of human trafficking. Men, women, and children who are forced into prostitution look just like us; they could be our neighbors, our classmates, or our friends. They could be just like Carissa. They are just like Carissa.
Let us join in the fight to end abuse, neglect, and trafficking, once and for all. Learn more about how you can be involved in Carissa’s work by visiting her website.