Founder and Director Nancy Gallinaro, left, and CEO Meredith Soucy at the Just Love Worldwide headquarters at the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook. The space also serves as a sanctuary for victims and survivors of sex trafficking and now includes a clothing boutique for them. Chance Viles / American Journal

WESTBROOK — A nonprofit that helps and advocates for survivors of sex trafficking and assists police in their cases has expanded its outreach with its new headquarters and clothing boutique in Westbrook.

Just Love Worldwide, which moved from the East Point Church in South Portland to Westbrook a few months ago, works on prevention, identification, escape, restoration and reform, and partners with local businesses and law enforcement to help survivors of sex trafficking, says founder and Director Nancy Gallinaro.

The boutique in the Just Love Worldwide headquarters. Courtesy photo

“What we have now is our space, which acts as a sanctuary where people can come and be themselves,” Gallinaro said.

The headquarters is a safe zone, she said. While a survivor’s life may be full of counseling and court dates, Just Love’s space is a place for them to socialize and build community, which is a major part of the restoration portion of JLW’s work.

“Restoration is lifelong. A lot of it is about reclaiming yourself and sense of being,” said Gallinaro, who started working with child sex trafficking victims in Florida when she lived there.

“Moving here six years ago, I began to work with local organizations and law enforcement to make connections to begin that work here,” Gallinaro said.

Maine has between 200-300 cases of sex trafficking a year, according to the Maine Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Network. Just Love says the number of cases is actually higher because many go unreported. Forty percent of police officers in the state say they responded to calls about sex trafficking in the last year, the network says.

Just Love in 2019 distributed over $30,000 in goods to survivors and helped more than 100 women, Gallinaro said, and it hopes to increase those numbers as trust in the organization grows. It relies on donations to fund its work.

Sex traffickers not only threaten their victims to coerce them into sexual slavery, they also make all decisions for them. That includes what clothes and accessories they will wear, often to the point where a survivor may have forgotten how to dress herself, Gallinaro said.

The new Just Love boutique, which provides clothing to survivors, many of whom have lost all their belongs when they escape, is a way to rebuild that part of a survivor’s self-worth.

A volunteer cleans the seating area of the headquarters, where movie nights and other events are held. Courtesy photo

“It is really much deeper than just clothes. Dressing yourself, having your style, it’s a part of who you are and how you express, and many of these women have lost that,” CEO Meredith Soucy said.

Soucy, before moving back to Maine and getting involved with Just Love, worked in fashion in New York City. Pairing her skills with her connections, she coordinates the donations of clothes and inspects pieces for quality. The boutique does not accept clothing with rips or stains, and aims to get stylish clothes that women may pick out for themselves.

“We also have hairdressers that offer free haircuts. That part, it gets back their style, which for many is a part of being a woman. It is big in unlocking confidence, dignity and pride. For others, they may never have had the chance to pick out clothes they want, and part of this may be learning themselves,” Soucy said.

Aside from the community and restoration aspect, Just Love is also involved in the prevention and identification of human trafficking, which involves hosting free seminars and workshops about the signs of human trafficking and how to respond to a potential case. It also works with local schools and organizations.

Just Love also works in “escape,” assisting police departments in Westbrook and South Portland. When those officers intervene in a sex trafficking case, they rely on Just Love’s ability to immediately connect with the victims and provide resources.

While many other organizations are helpful, Just Love is one of the few that can respond immediately to situations with no “red tape,” said South Portland Police Officer David Stailing, who specializes in community engagement.

“Basically, at a drop of a hat, they help after we forward the call,” Stailing said. “It’s big because sometimes you go to help someone and you know they aren’t going to follow up on resources or get help because of that time-lapse, whatever their situation is, but I have been able to just put them through to (Just Love).”

Once Just Love takes over to help the victims, the police are out of the loop.

“It becomes confidential then. We don’t know what goes on at that point, but we do know of some success stories,” Stailing said. 

“I have a success story with a (victim) who I met at a hotel who posted on social media selling her body. I did not arrest her, rather (Just Love) was able to help her out and get her back on her feet with some clothing, helped her with her car. Now she is doing great and has a job,” he said.

Considering many pimps give their victims drugs to keep them coming back or that a woman with substance misuse problems may traffic themselves for drug money, Just Love also can connect people with rehab centers.

“Another time I found a woman selling herself around Christmas for money. I put her through to Just Love and they provided her with gifts for her children,” Stailing said.

Just Love is beginning to focus more on reformation, the last piece of its mission. Shared Hope International, a national non-profit working against child sex trafficking, gives Maine a near-failing grade in terms of how its laws protect children from trafficking.

“Selling a woman a single time is a misdemeanor in this state, which is outrageous to me. It’s at the same level of say, someone stealing from Walmart or something. There are a number of laws we are working to change,” Gallarino said.

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