They each have a story.
The statistics are sobering. According to the International Justice Mission, human trafficking generates more than $150 billion a year, making it among the top three most profitable criminal industries in the world. More than 40 million are currently victims of human trafficking around the globe, including in the United States. One in four victims is a child.
Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable in society, trapping them in desperate, hopeless lives most often in the form of forced labor, sexual abuse and physical violence. Orphans are particularly vulnerable, as they often find themselves in dire economic circumstances in which they can be easily coerced, tricked or intimidated into the trade in order to “escape” a desperate situation or seek a sense of love and security promised by traffickers that was often absent in their childhood.
This tragic, heartbreaking reality is present everywhere. According to the Christian Alliance for Orphans, an estimated 60 to 85 percent of child trafficking victims in the United States come from the foster system.
In Ukraine and Moldova, the statistics are just as staggering. Twenty percent of the boys will be labor-trafficked. Sixty percent of orphan girls will be trafficked once they age out of an orphanage at 16. The average girl will be prostituted out 6,000 times on average. Twelve percent will commit suicide before their 18th birthday. Forty-eight percent will die before their 21st birthday.
One ministry is seeking to care for orphans and show them the love of Christ – and a brighter future. Its name is Roads of Hope, and its mission is to proclaim hope to the hopeless.
The story of Roads of Hope began in 2014 when founder Joe Savage, who was the dean of the University of Mobile at the time, took students wanting to work in orphan care on a mission trip to Moldova. They were at the largest orphanage in the country - which at the time housed 440 kids - when Savage began to sense a call to help.
"My students were playing and doing activities with the kids, but a friend of mine and I are standing there and we're just gripped," Savage said. "We're just taken by this because we're looking at these 14, 15-year-old girls with the same hopes, dreams, aspirations as any 14 or 15-year-old girl. What they didn't realize was that two out of three will be trafficked once they finished. The first step of the first day that they left the orphanage at 16 is the first step of the first day that they were walking towards the trafficking, walking towards death. We're looking at these kids, and we just stood there with deep compassion and knew that God wanted us to do something."
Savage and a friend began praying and discussing what they could do. Soon, they had a plan. This plan was to start a home for girls who have aged out of the orphanage, keep them in school (only two percent will ever go to a university on average), teach them what a family is, walk alongside them and share about the hope and love found in a relationship with Jesus. They prayed in the middle of the orphanage for God to provide a home and an opportunity. Three days later, they had a house, house parents and their first three kids.
Soon, an Alabama state senator asked Savage to accompany him to Ukraine for a national prayer breakfast. One thing led to another, and Roads of Hope began hosting children and doing humanitarian aid in Ukraine in addition to running several homes in Moldova.
The ministry continued to expand, and Savage left the University of Mobile to focus his attention on providing care to orphans in need of hope. Roads of Hope eventually began a four-to-six week long hosting program in the United States for some of the orphans residing in state orphanages across Ukraine. There have currently been 19 kids hosted in the United States anywhere from Texas to Florida.
Roads of Hope, which is based in Alabama, recently brought eight of its boys to visit Olive Branch at the end of July after getting connected with a local pastor and his family only several weeks before.
Pastor Charlie Shafer of First Baptist Church in Olive Branch (FBCOB) and his family were staying at a condo in Orange Beach during the week of the Fourth of July when they learned about Roads of Hope from the condo's owner, who was involved in the organization. The Shafers made a plan to stop by the host home, make a meal and hang out with the boys on the way back to Olive Branch.
"I remember praying 'God, don't let it be awkward. Don't let us be comfortable, but don't let it be awkward' because we wanted to connect with them," Shafer said. "We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. When we get there, it's just an immediate connection with the boys, even with the leadership."
The Shafers fell in love with the boys and spent about four hours with them. They eventually left, but they couldn't get the boys out of their minds.
"When we left, Stephanie [Charlie's wife] was like 'I feel like I'm leaving something,'" Shafer said. "Instantly it just clicked with all of us, the same thing, that we felt like we were leaving something. We all felt the same way, and we prayed and we cried and we prayed and we cried. Stephanie was texting one of the adult sponsors, and so we were like 'we would love for you to come.' One of the boys had asked him if we were coming back tomorrow. They were kind of disappointed from what I understand. We were too, we loved them."
Savage, who wasn't at the host home at the time, learned about the Shafers and their concern for the boys and became intrigued.
"Ultimately, I called them just to see who they were," Savage said. "We ended up talking for two hours on the phone. They said that they had people who would love to help and get involved."
During that two-hour conversation, Savage and the Shafers casted a vision for what a visit would look like. At the end, Savage told the Shafers to pray about it and call him the next day.
The next day, Shafer's wife shared a testimony video about their experience on Facebook. The video quickly spread, and people began texting and calling to learn how they could help. WREG expressed interest in having the boys appear on its morning show. A local radio station also expressed interest. Savage became excited that the word was spreading.
"All of that evolved, and we were like 'we're coming,'" Savage said. "It was so obvious that God was at work, that there was a lot of really big-hearted people who cared. We were just in awe that we would be on television in a major United States metropolis that quickly off of that one phone call."
"All we did was get the word out in a few places, and people just ran with it," Shafer said. "It's been all God, and there's been some [spiritual] warfare that we've fought, some opposition to a certain extent. Our focus remains on God. It's not about us. It's about those kids."
During their two-day visit to Olive Branch, the boys appeared on WREG Live at 9, went shopping, ate lunch with local pastors and had the opportunity to play soccer with members of the DeSoto Central High School soccer team at an event held at FBCOB. They were also able to visit Olive Branch City Hall, tour the Olive Branch Police Department, eat lunch at Lost Pizza and race go carts at the Autobahn Race Track in Memphis.
Shafer said that their goal is simple: to make people aware of the Roads of Hope ministry and to grow it throughout the U.S. He's already excited about the connections being made and is hopeful about the future.
"There's no telling what God can do now, the connections that we have up here in Arkansas and Missouri and Texas and Illinois and Indiana and Tennessee," Shafer said. "I know that there's people out there right now that God is preparing. It's almost surreal what's happening. Man cannot make the things that's happened, raising up the funds, local businesses pouring out their love and helping out, families opening up their homes freely."
The Gospel is at the forefront of this ministry, and a focus on the Father and on Scripture, particularly James 1:27, is crucial. Shafer said that the simplest thing that anyone can do is pray.
"These are great kids that need hope and they need love and they need encouragement and they need Jesus," Shafer said.
Broken. Hurting. Lonely. Desperate. All of these words describe the plight of orphans. As they head down a path most likely marked with darkness, despair, disease and death, Roads of Hope is showing them a better path.
Shafer challenges people who feel led to help to be uncomfortable.
"I love praying this prayer that 'God, use me as a channel for the Holy Spirit to work through,'" Shafer said. "I think the biggest thing is just making ourselves available. That wasn't an accident that we visited them. That was meant to happen. Them coming here was meant to happen. It's almost like you could feel it halfway through our visit there. I just knew that they were special. We've just been obedient, just a vessel."
Self-worth and self-esteem is often lacking for those that are orphaned, but Shafer hopes that the ministry shows orphans that they do have worth and that they can make a decent life for themselves. Savage has already seen progress - one of the boys didn't believe he could do anything and couldn't swim. He eventually got on a boat and allowed himself to be pulled along on a tube. And he was smiling.
Savage is amazed by the outpouring of love and support that has already been shown by the community, from the student soccer players and parents who volunteered their time and talents, to the families, church members and community members who attended the event and offered to help, to local businesses that showed their support, to the television hosts who urged them to come back on the show. Savage believes that there’s a reason for the overwhelming response.
“There's something deep inside of people that when they see a kid who's an orphan, who has a need, there's something in us that says that it's just right, it's pure to help, there's something right about helping that child,” Savage said. “Certainly I think the Holy Spirit of God is moving on people, but I also think that God puts in us something deep that says ‘I need to help and it's the right thing to do.’ I think too that people are looking for things that are right to be a part of.”
To read stories about the kids' journeys, search for Roads of Hope on Facebook.
Brent Walker is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.