ALEXANDRIA, Va., November 22, 2014 — Meet Shamere McKenzie, the recently-appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Sun Gate Foundation, a national organization focused on providing support to survivors of human trafficking who wish to gain access to private, continuing, and/or higher education. Why is this mission important to Shamere? Because she herself was once a victim of sex trafficking, and as a young adult pursuing a college education, she has had to overcome many obstacles.
“As a survivor, I know firsthand the stigma and difficulties faced by survivors of sex trafficking,” Shamere says, “And, as the recipient of the first Sun Gate Foundation scholarship, I am a walking example to other survivors that they too can pick up the broken pieces and live a life of their choosing.”
In this special interview, Shamere tells us more about the Sun Gate Foundation and how we can all get involved in supporting victims of human trafficking.
Holly Smith: Shamere, how was this organization started?
Shamere McKenzie: Sun Gate Foundation was founded in 2013 by Suzanne Priest and co-founded by Ashley Davidson when they became aware of issues of human trafficking. Suzanne and Ashley quickly realized that they wanted and could make a difference in the lives of trafficking survivors in the United States by creating opportunities for access to education that would otherwise not be available. They believe that, through education, survivors can create a life enriched with greater opportunity, giving them a chance to live their dreams.
HS: What is the mission statement for Sun Gate Foundation?
McKenzie: To provide support to survivors of human trafficking by creating opportunities to access education that can enable and empower them. Through these opportunities, survivors can generate manageable, independent lives throughout their long term restoration process.
HS: Tell us about your board members.
McKenzie: Our Senior Board Advisor is Kevin Bales, co-founder and previous president of Free The Slaves; he is also the author of Disposable People, The Slave Next Door, and Ending Slavery, among other books. Our Chairman is Mark Tatum, founder and president of Positive Brothers and Sister, life coach, adjunct professor, and licensed minister at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church.
Our Secretary is Keisha Head, a national activist, advocate, motivational speaker, and survivor of child sex trafficking. Our Treasurer, Layla Doman, is an information technology professional and a financial literacy trainer in her local non-profit community.
Our Vice Chair, Dan Brook, is an attorney, currently serving as a Counsel for the Board of Veteran’s Appeals (BVA) in Washington D.C. And our Members include: Michele Clarke, an internationally-recognized expert on combating human trafficking who also helped to write the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 – the U.S. federal legislation that aims to protect victims of human trafficking; Sarah Gardner, the Director of Development at Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, an anti-exploitation organization co-founded by actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher; Deanna McPherson, Deputy Juvenile Officer for the Delinquency and Clinical Department at the St. Louis Family Court; and Rukyra Ambrose, a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago, a LUCES (Loyola University Chicago Empowering Sisterhood) Scholar, which is a program focused on building community and navigating college life and womanhood as a woman of color, and program coordinator for the Sun Gate Foundation.
HS: Where are your headquarters based, and where are your efforts based?
McKenzie: Although our headquarters are in Alexandria, VA, we are a national organization that aims to provide support to survivors around the country. We are looking to partner with private schools, colleges, and universities around the nation; and we are excited about our first partnership with Elizabeth Seton High School where a survivor will receive a 4-year scholarship at a high school focused on college readiness and leadership.
HS: How can readers get involved?
McKenzie: We are currently running our 5 for Five campaign! Through this campaign, Sun Gate Foundation is raising funds to help purchase text books for survivors enrolled in college for Fall Semester 2015. This is an important first step in launching our effort to provide increasing levels of financial support for survivors’ educational needs. The average cost of a semester’s worth of text books is around $600. Our goal is to raise at least $3,000. This can finance the text books for at least five survivors. Not only can your readers donate $5 or more to this campaign, but they can encourage friends and family to donate as well.
HS: Is the Sun Gate Foundation involved with other anti-trafficking efforts?
McKenzie: Yes, we also provide trainings to spread awareness about human trafficking, and we are involved in anti-trafficking efforts such as advocacy, prevention, education, awareness, and legislation. For example, on December 15th, we will be speaking at Monmouth Regional High School to educate students on the dangers of sex trafficking.
HS: What advice would you give to young people about the warning signs of a potential sex trafficker?
McKenzie: Young people should trust their gut instincts. If your gut feeling is telling you that something is not right, then it probably isn’t. If something seems too good to be true – question it. Find a trusted adult to talk things through. Do not allow anyone to force you into something that feels uncomfortable. Sex is a beautiful thing when conducted in the “right relationships”. Therefore, do not let anyone encourage you to have sex for money.
Shamere has an associate degree in liberal arts from St. John’s University and is slated to graduate from Loyola University Chicago in May 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She plans to enter into law school to study public interest law; her goal is to bring about systemic change in the world. While continuing her education, Shamere hopes to encourage others by example.
“We hope to inspire and motivate more survivors to return to school or learn a trade without worrying about financial support,” Shamere said, “We hope to continue to support educational opportunities for survivors of human trafficking.” You can support Shamere’s mission with Sun Gate Foundation and the journeys of many other survivors toward education by visiting www.sun-gate.org and donating to the 5 for Five campaign today!
Holly Austin Smith is a Survivor of Child Sex Trafficking in the United States and the Author of Walking Prey: How America’s Children are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery.