Yolanda Schlabach – Changing the Landscaping of Human Trafficking

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First TEDx Talk, August 2016

Yolanda is one Remarkable Woman. I had the pleasure of interviewing her recently on our Remarkable Unfiltered Conversation Series. I left our conversation with so many questions and wanted to follow-up with her here in case you felt the same way.

Yolanda has been involved as a Human Trafficking Advocate in Delaware since 2012. She married Dan in 1990 and is a mom to three beautiful children. As this issue has been brought to the forefront in Delaware when it had been previously unacknowledged, everyone is asking Yolanda – “Who are you?” In a sense, they are asking, “Where did you come from, what’s your background, and how did you get here?”

Yolanda has a clear calling. She’s on a mission.

How did you get involved with Human Trafficking in Delaware?

In 2012, we formed our 501(C)3, Zoe Ministries, Inc.. Along with my board of directors, I was praying and seeking to determine our direction. Our original thought was to operate a facility for homeless, pregnant women. So, I started calling various state agencies to determine the voids in services and the needs.

Someone within a State agency told me, “We don’t have anything for trafficking victims.” I had no idea what she meant. I thought a trafficked victim was someone who had been hit by a car. She told me about human trafficking and I was dumbfounded and horrified. I started talking to friends, lawyers, social workers, law enforcement and court employees, and the majority responded with, “That doesn’t happen in Delaware” or “There are no stats for that. We just don’t see that in our state.”

I went online to Polaris Project, the national anti-human trafficking organization. Their heat-map displays red dots for suspicious/actual activity. I found the I-95 corridor was covered with so many red dots, I couldn’t even see Delaware! I was confused -I was looking at the Polaris map with indications of heavy human trafficking activity, yet none of us knew about it. There was a definite “disconnect”.

Finally I found one person who worked at Department of Justice– one of the top prosecutors, who agreed with Polaris. He told me, “It happens. ..and unfortunately, we don’t have state legislation to fight human trafficking.”

So, we were covered under federal legislation (TVPA of 2000), but Delaware had no arrests or prosecutions, partially because there was no legislation at the state level. I thought, “If we aren’t prosecuting the perpetrators, then we aren’t identifying or assisting the victims, either.”

What is that like for your family?

I have three kids and an amazingly supportive husband. They all are informed and supportive of my work, but my youngest son, who is only 9 years old, understands elements at only the most basic level–that there are people who make bad, evil choices to hurt others, and that Mom wants to help the victims. Mom is a modern-day abolitionist.

My fifteen year old daughter knows how dangerous people in the world can be, as she has heard my presentations and attended one of my TED talks. I shield her from nothing because she’s the target age. And my 22 year old son is aware of the reality of trafficking and how I spend my days. Even with the common discussions of the topic in our home, we still recognize the goodness in people and that every person is made in God’s image– but we all have freedom to choose. We are not robots. I don’t want to become jaded or skewed in my perception of people, but it can be a challenge in this type of work, dealing with this level of degradation every day.

My husband has been phenomenally supportive. He’s always encouraged me– whether it was my desire to return to school or start this organization. He would always tell me, “Whatever you want to do, I want to be the platform from which you jump. Whatever it takes to meet your dreams, I want to help you launch.”

We’ve been married almost 30 years, and he’s still never sure what’s going to come out of my mouth.  He’s been my organizational security blanket, helping build the foundation of Zoe as I navigated through developing a solid board of directors. He has offered me much entrepreneurial wisdom throughout this journey. He knows business, finances, and has expertise in the areas in which I lack. We make a really effective team.

What Are a Couple Challenges That Have you Overcome in Life that You Don’t Mind Sharing About?

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Second TEDx Talk, November 2017

I had a pretty typical childhood. Although when I was 14, I was diagnosed with cancer and required two separate surgeries. I was not promised a positive outcome. At that age, teens often consider themselves indestructible.  So did I. I did not truly consider how many young people do not have desired outcomes. But- surgeries and annual follow ups were clear, thankfully.

At age 16, I had a car accident that could have killed me. I was hit by a drunk driver, going 75 mph in my Pontiac T1000. My car spun around several times before slamming me into a telephone pole. But by the grace of God, I was spared again. I immediately got out of my car and suffered only minimal injuries. It was truly a miracle.

In 1996, when I delivered my first son, I suffered a severe post-partum hemorrhage. I coded twice: no heart rate or breathing. I woke up in ICU on a ventilator. It was pretty traumatic for me. The surgeons emergently removed my uterus to save my life. I was only 26. I delivered a baby one night and the next morning, woke up to discover that I would never carry another child.

We’ve walked a challenging, roller coaster journey in order to bring our other two children into our family. We adopted our second child, our amazing daughter, when she was three months old (don’t ever let anyone tell you that adoption labor is easier than physical labor!). She is the one God had for us, without a doubt. We needed her as much as she needed us. I cannot wait to see what God has in store for her. Her entry into our family is every bit as miraculous as her brothers’ stories, but I want her to be able to tell her own story one day–and it is hers to share, not mine. So, out respect for her and her birth mother, I will refrain from details. Just know that we had other opportunities to adopt during the three months we were waiting for her to come home, but we declined those other offers. I knew this baby girl was already ours, God-designed and divinely-orchestrated, as a perfect fit for our growing family.

Six years later, we had another incredible journey….this time through IVF, with our son. One of my life-long friends, Rosena, invited us to visit them in their new home in Lancaster, after just having moved from Florida.  Many phone calls were spent, in the recent years, sharing the pain of the sudden infertility we didn’t see in our future, but was now our new reality. She walked through life with me. She was there the night I almost died in childbirth. When went to Lancaster to visit them, and they took us out to dinner. She told me about that night I almost died. She said, “We knew you were going to live. And God impressed upon me that I will carry a baby for you someday…but not to tell you about it until He prompts me.”

It had been 11 years at that point that she kept quiet–that she held onto that promise All I could do was cry. The overwhelming provision that God plans for us is beyond my comprehension.

In my humanity, though, I was a bit gun-shy about getting excited. However, she assured me that she was certain that God impressed on her that she would carry my biological baby. Today, that baby is alive and well, nine years strong, and a gift to both of our families.

Can You Share A Success Story from Zoe Ministries?

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First Statewide Human Trafficking Professional Training Conference, hosted by Zoë Ministries

There was a trafficking victim who was addicted to heroin when I first met her. In every way,  many people would have considered her beyond repair. A team worked closely with her, piece-mealing case management, trauma therapy, housing and education for her. She was able to escape her situation, and is currently working two jobs and is attending college! It’s amazing. To watch the resilience within the human spirit is incredible. She had been brutally abused and exploited by the only person who had ever told her that he loved her. I was blessed to watch her not only survive, but thrive– because she had the right resources, long-term housing and caring, competent professionals trained in trafficking and trauma-informed care.

If she didn’t have housing, she would’ve been vulnerable out on the street, and risked being exploited again. If she was starving, she may have had petty theft on her record because she was desperate to eat and stole food. If she was being trafficked and discovered by untrained law enforcement, she would be cited for prostitution. The cycle continues then as she would be unable to gain employment to support herself because no one wants to hire a former prostitute. It’s the epitome of a vicious cycle.

However, when we are able to provide them with long-term safe housing and trauma-informed resources, we can watch survivors launch from that platform. And they do. However flawed and however bruised – redemption is possible.

I believe God said that He will change the landscaping of human trafficking in Delaware. I want to be a willing participant and my heart is to serve Him in obedience. I always give Him credit for all of the dynamics that occur because I know it’s not me that holds the power to move this state forward in anti-trafficking efforts. In 2012, there was virtually no discussion of this topic, no state legislation, no protocols in our state, and no professional trainings or protocol development. God has changed all of that in the past 7 years. It is exciting to watch and even more exciting to be a part of His big plan! I am very humbled by what He has allowed me to accomplish in this state–and I give Him all glory for it.

People are actually asking, “Who is she? Where did she come from?” I’m just a mom who cared, listened, learned, and decided to do something about it, led by divine directives.

What are some things you do you do to recharge?

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Target shooting with a compound bow for a change (from the usual .22 Reuger or .38 Smith & Wesson

I need physical outlets, so I work out 3-4 times a week at the gym–and I love to target shoot. It’s a release for me. There is something incredibly therapeutic about unleashing a round of a hundred magazines into a target attached to hay bales from 50 yards. Both of these activities require total and complete focus for different reasons, but it clears my head of anything except what I am focused on in that moment.

I’m also very intentional about taking two “me-cations” a year. I may take a long weekend, four to five days, and go away by myself. Sometimes I just get in the car and start driving to see where I land! Usually my destination is a quaint, quiet town. I’ll grab my favorite wine, watch movies, read, and eat Turkey Hill Ice Cream and just recharge. I love to shop and meet new people wherever I go.

Where do you seek out inspiration?

Honestly, on my knees. My inspiration comes from God, Himself.

What Are a Few of Your Favorite Books or TedTalks?

  • The Key to Success: Grit – everyone can relate to it. It levels the playing field.
  • Any books by Brennan Manning, but especially The Ragamuffin Gospel – we all screw up and God loves us anyway!
  • My Utmost for His Highest and Devotions for a Deeper Life by Oswald Chambers
  • Black, Red, White – Ted Dekker (trilogy)
  • The Shack
  • Redeeming Love

Do You Share Some Remarkable Friendships with Women?

Yes! Many women come to mind.

For example, Rosena, my dear friend, the woman who carried my baby.

Also, I have made some amazing friends through the work that I do. What began as a working relationship in anti-trafficking efforts has blossomed into connections that I cherish. Leslie Brower, Mary McDonough, Rita Landgraf, Kristan Hudson and Patty D’Angelo (now my assistant), and Lauren Arnold are just a few of the women that I have come to love, respect and admire. Their hearts are an amazing blessing to me.

Sharon Stevens is one of the most remarkable women I’ve met. I’ve known her for less than 7 years, but we were kindred spirits immediately. We think alike, talk alike, and enjoy taking trips together. She is the one in my adult life who spoke truth into who I am. She went right to the “heart of the onion”, and didn’t bother peeling back “one layer at a time”. God spoke to her, through her, to me, about who I was, and it changed me. There’s an instant forever bond between us. I look to her for keeping me straight. She can say things to me that no one else can get away with. She takes responsibility for herself. She will always apologize for her part, and not more. And I love that.  We both are able to lay issues on the table, leave them there after sifting through, and then move on. Everyone needs a close friend like Sharon in her life.

I have a very special inner circle of about  6-8 friends to whom I am very close–and so many just outside that, even. The common thread is being real– being transparent. Knowing that we’re broken, but it’s okay, because we are all broken together. There is never condemnation or judgment. We are able to separate who we are from what we have done.

And thank you to my new friend, Jennifer Sacco, for this opportunity to share more about me and the anti-trafficking efforts made in the state of Delaware! You are a remarkable woman with a great heart to encourage.

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