Crystal Yarbrough with Eye Heart World

Crystal Yarbrough with Eye Heart World

On this week's podcast, Marcus sits down with Crystal Yarborough. Crystal is the Alabama director and also the Rose Center Director for Eye Heart World. She has always had a heart for helping broken women. Listen to this week's podcast and find out how this brought her to Eye Heart and the Rose Center.


Crystal: My name is Crystal Yarborough. I'm the Alabama director and also the Rose Center Director for Eye Heart World.

Marcus: Yay. Crystal, it's great to have you here. I really am glad that we're getting this chance to kinda share what it is you and Eye Heart World are doing in the area, so thank you for joining us.

Crystal: Thank you so much for having us.

Marcus: Yeah, to get started basically what we'd like to do is get some of the back story about the person so we understand kind of how you got to where you are. Why don't you tell us where you're from. Where'd you go to high school, college? Just give us anything that might help us understand who you are and how you became the director of the local Eye Heart World efforts.

Crystal: Okay. I am from Florida. I was born and raised in Florida. Kind of a little bit of the background about that, I didn't come from a traditional home which I can, now as an adult I can see how everything led to me towards where I am now. I came from a very abusive home. Fast forward ...

Marcus: This is a podcast and we've got 25 minutes to fill so don't feel like you need to fast forward over anything.

Crystal: I did come from, really in looking at it the more you learn about girls who were trafficked, I followed a lot of that in my childhood and in my teenage years. It was just always in my heart to do something with girls, with women. I didn't know exactly what that was, I just felt like my heart was very stirred for broken women and I told my husband, "Just know that one day, whenever our children are grown and gone, I wanna sell everything and move to Amsterdam and work in the Red Light District."

Marcus: Wow.

Crystal: And he was like, "Haha."

Marcus: Yeah.

Crystal: Just for a couple of years, my heart just really stirred and I remember meeting with a youth pastor and she said, "Let's get these girls together with guidance counselors" and this and that and I could just remember that just didn't seem right. I said, "I think that's an amazing idea, but to be honest, I think I'm called to work with the girls whose parents aren't bringing them to church." A good friend of ours asked me, he said, "Crystal," he said, "I feel like there's something that God is moving somehow in your life, in your heart." I said, "To be honest, I'm so busy that if he is, I can't hear him". He asked me, he said, "Well, what breaks your heart? What is it that when you lay down in bed at night, you are like, not on my watch?" I said it's the state of our young girls. It's the brokenness of womanhood.

Marcus: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Crystal: That just kind of lingered, kinda stuck with us. I was just really praying about it and searching and then my husband went on a mission trip to Honduras and one of the pastors from our church, they were in a conversation actually on the way home. My husband was telling him, "Look, if my wife had her way, we would sell everything and move to the Red Light District." He said, "Does she have a heart for human trafficking? Is that what it is?" My husband said yes and he said, "Well, you should meet this couple who goes to our church." Their names are Bryan and Susan Russo. They actually combat sex trafficking here locally. My husband came back and told me about it and the meeting was set up and I remember them coming to- We owned a gym at that time. I remember them coming to the gym and we sat down in the conference room and they started sharing a little bit with us about I Heart World. I can remember sitting at that table and I just started saying some things just about my childhood that I'd never said out loud to people. People knew, my husband knew, but it wasn't anything I'd ever said in a group of people. I didn't know how it was that I came to just say that. I looked at them and I said, "We wanna help you. We don't have any money. But we can work out and we know a lot of people. We have 100 members who workout and we wanna have a workout for you." We spent about five weeks and did something called Sweat Against Slavery and raised almost $8,000 for Eye Heart World and that was just kinda the genesis of getting to know them and getting to know a little bit about what they were doing.

Marcus: No, that's really cool. Why don't you go back and tell us about Eye Heart World and what the organization stands for and how they operate and stuff like that.

Crystal: Yeah, Eye Heart World was founded in 2010 and our founders Bryan and Susan Russo, they went to a conference and really were exposed to the issue of human sex trafficking, domestic sex trafficking and were just compelled. What do we have in our hands? That's something that has continued through Eye Heart World is ... Eye Heart World is really big on what do we have in our hands and everything we've done has been born out of a need. We saw, there's a need and what do we have in our hands? Susan and her mother sewed 30 handbags and sold them and donated the profits to a local safe house. They did that over and over again and then Bryan accepted a position here locally in Alabama in 2012 and they had made a decision that Susan would do Eye Heart World and just kind of bring awareness. In 2012, 2013, that just was not really anything that anyone knew about here in Alabama. She just really developed that from 2013 to 2015 and that's whenever I came on board as a volunteer and then they were called to Wisconsin. Since 2015 to 2018, we have a 12 to 14 month after care program that's a residential after care program in Green Bay, Wisconsin which is where they are now. It does house up to eight girls and then in March of this years, we opened up the Rose Center here in Mobile and we're a daytime drop-in center.

Marcus: So, explain to people what that means, though, because I don't think people quite understand. Also, I think ... Let's just go back. This podcast is normally business, but we also highlight people that are doing really good things in Mobile. We just wanna share what organizations are doing. This is a heavy topic. This is not an easy topic and we're diverging or diverting or whatever the word is from our normal programming because we felt like this was something that was important enough that you needed to be aware of. If you're listening to this and you're kind of wondering what the heck's going on, just join us on this ride if you will 'cause I think you'll get something out of this. Tell us what the Rose Center is and then also if you can weave in some statistics 'cause I think when people think of Mobile, Alabama, they don't necessarily think of this as kind of a hub for sex trafficking.

Crystal: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for kind of veering off what you normally do. People don't know what they don't know. I thought we had to sell everything and move to another country, but once you learn that it does happen in our own backyard ... We look at certain key triggers for domestic sex trafficking and the best way I can explain it is I once heard a survivor say that America's not a third world country and therefore, our trafficking doesn't look the way it looks in third world countries.

Marcus: Right.

Crystal: You kind of have to take off that lens of the movie "Taken" and look at it with a whole new frame. We look at things like poverty. For example, Mobile has a 23.3% rate of poverty. The national average is 14.7, so when you get into what will a mother not do to feed her children, when you get into families that are having their power turned off, when it's an exchange of basic needs and then we look at sexual abuse. 98% of women in prostitution were sexually abused in adolescence. One in four girls in the United States are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Those are pathways. We look at foster care and there are over 500 children in the foster care system just in Mobile. We look at things like that. We also look at substance abuse. Substance abuse really, I think we kind of as a culture look at it like you have a choice. But understanding that substance abuse is a segue into trafficking, selling-

Marcus: I think, show a little bit more empathy for people. It's ridiculous to think, well it's a choice. Yes, it is a choice but the reality is that, at some point in time, people feel the need to escape their reality. I'm involved in a couple of organizations and one of the things that was mentioned to me about two years ago or so was that there are kids that go to school on Dolphin Island Parkway that have never seen Mobile Bay. The average income of people that live in the area near Wesley Dumas, which it's escaping me the little area around there what that's called ... Shoot, I can't remember it. But anyway, the average income there is like $12,000. I mean, when you start to think about the poverty and the things that people are dealing with. It is amazing what someone will do when they're faced with not being able to feed their kids or not being able to really kind of just exist. You think, well, there are all these government programs and stuff like that, but the reality is that even the government programs don't really subsidize life anymore. But anyway, I'm side tracking.

Crystal: No, no, that's great.

Marcus: So, the Rose Center.

Crystal: Yeah. If I can elaborate on what you said a little bit, it does require ... What we found, the difference between Green Bay and Mobile, aside from the fact that it's arctic up there. We're combating a culture here that it's very much, in Green Bay, people identify the problem and they're like, let's go after it. It's just something- We're also, we're very comfortable in the South about being able to kind of put blinders on and we don't see what we don't see. That's a really big issue for us. Someone just told me the other day about an elementary school here that has a year-round school. Part of the reason they went to year-round school is because a lot of the kids only eat at school and because they are so poor. They have nine weeks. They're off for two weeks, but then the one week, one of the weeks, they're allowed to come to the school for certain activities so that they can eat. It's right here, you know? You're right. I've been a single mom. I was a single mom for eight years and I mean, I started college when my daughter started kindergarten. But I can tell you, even with a college education, it's really, really hard. When all you want is for your child to have a better life than what you had, desperate people make desperate choices. Anyway, I'm sorry. You asked me about the Rose Center.

Marcus: Yeah, no, it's fine.

Crystal: We are a daytime drop-in center. We serve survivors and severely at-risk people who have been exploited by the commercial sex industry and sex trafficked. When I say the commercial sex industry, girls who are working in strip clubs and being sold on the side. We really, the goal is we meet them where they are. It takes a lot to go into a program- If you're familiar with domestic violence at all, these girls, women, they want out but it terrifies them to go someplace they don't know. All of the sudden, you're going to a shelter. Everything, they have to give up their phone. What we do is we meet 'em where they are. It's a safe place for them to just rest for the day. We offer everything from a hot meal, hygiene products, a shower, a place to wash their clothes, continuing education, trauma informed counseling, a coping skills program. We help them get into an apartment. We even help them get an ID and make a safety plan. We can help them ... I just talked to someone the other day to help get a safety plan and she lives in Baldwin County. Her husband has drugged her and sold her to be- And she's terrified. She doesn't know any other options that she has. But what we do is we just meet them where they are and if it's not a service that we provide, then we connect with other organizations in the community we partner with to just help get these girls a chance. Even businesses who are willing to hire them knowing that they have a record. I would say something that's extremely unique about our program is we're strength based and we're also trauma informed and what that means is we wanna hold everyone accountable for their actions. We understand that our girls are not only victims of a crime but they're also perpetrators. We want to address that but then also address the underlying trauma that continues to keep them where they are.

Marcus: What kind of- I don't know. I don't even know, honestly, just the questions. It just blows me away that we're having this discussion about Mobile, Alabama 'cause it is something that we think about happening in other areas. But, I'm assuming that you guys are seeing some successes though in what you're-

Crystal: We are, yeah.

Marcus: Okay, very good.

Crystal: Do you want me to speak to that?

Marcus: Please.

Crystal: It's interesting that you use the word success because one thing that I've realized is, in this work, you have to redefine success. What I mean by that is, I'll just share a story with you about one of our participants right now. She was born in Fairhope. She was trafficked by her grandmother. Her grandmother used to take her to men's houses and they would pay her grandmother and make her pose for child pornography and also, sexually assault her. Also, her uncle lived with them and he severely, brutally raped her in childhood every single day. She finally told a counselor at school. They removed her from the home when she was 13 and from the time she was 13 to 17, she lived in seven different foster homes in Baldwin County. She was sexually abused in four of them. At the age of 17, they were gonna, I guess what they refer to as a crisis, and transferred her to a children's home in Mobile. They didn't have any other place to take her. She's now in her, she's almost 30 and she actually heard about the Rose Center and wanted to come as a volunteer. The first couple of times, it was just basically building trust with her, but being able to identify the trauma and sitting down and talking with her saying, "I would like for you to be part of our program." She is and the differences in her are unbelievable. This is a person who people would probably just honestly look at and say she's weird. But she said, "I've never been able to share these things with someone." She's learned how to cope in her life, but she's always thought that once she shared things with people, they would be gone or that's a part of them that people don't understand. Kind of a little win about her is she used to leave all the time. She would just run and she would go and put herself in dangerous positions, it's just what she's used to. She showed me one day that she wrote our crisis number on her wrist and she said, "Every time I leave, I write this number on my wrist so I'll know to come back." It's a big thing for her to not leave, to not run. She's really been walking through that and she made a vision board for the first time in her life. She is able to, she has coping mechanisms, like she sent me a message that said, here's how I identified the voices that were going on in my head. Here's how I identified that they were not the truth. Here's what the truth is about me and I know that I can overcome this and because I have lived through this, there's a purpose for my pain. That might not seem like, oh she's in this-

Marcus: That is a huge thing.

Crystal: It's huge. Understanding every little step is such a huge win because when this girl came to us, she was making a plan to commit suicide.

Marcus: Yeah.

Crystal: You think, how has she lived with this pain her entire life? She never felt like she had a safe place, you know? The fact that, if it's just for this one girl, that's success. It doesn't mean that she won't have another hard day and she won't run again. But when we talk about this might be what has happened to you, but it's not who you are.

Marcus: Right.

Crystal: Wins like that, it's huge success. We were contacted about a 16 year old who was trafficked two years ago. Long story short, we ended up helping her get into an after-care program and her mom sent me a message and invited me to her high school graduation in May. I got to go and watch her walk across the stage and graduate from high school.

Marcus: That's really cool.

Crystal: That's huge.

Marcus: Yeah. Again, heavy topic, but what are some of the organizations? Is there any way that people can get involved? What is it that they can do to help?

Crystal: Yeah. We have a lot of opportunities for volunteers. Because it is such a confidential and-

Marcus: Yeah, I mean you can't just accept anybody.

Crystal: It requires so much training, but we do have lots of opportunities for volunteers. Get involved at is a place where people can go. They can choose- And we have a list of about 16 different ways that we send initially. Here are 16 different ways that you can get involved and just helping combat the issue. Then if they want to take the next step, if they feel like they want to be a little more involved, then we go through a volunteer training and then they're able to check areas where they can be involved based on their gifts and talents. Not everyone can be at the Rose Center and we don't have that opportunity, but everything from- Because we are a 501c-3 and because our girls have so many needs, even things like making copies. Things like helping us keep the center running, snacks, meals, because we do serve one hot meal a day. Just having people cook a meal and bring it and drop it off. Just food for the girls.

Marcus: Yeah. Yeah, that's important. What is- Well, I'm not even gonna try. There's no way to make this about who you are or what motivates you or the people or podcasts or anything. There's just no way for me to do that. I really just wanna say thank you for ... I just really wanna say thank you for what you guys do. I know Brian and Susan and without people like you pouring into others lives, there would be, yeah, there would be a lot of women that would just really be searching for help. If you're still listening, I appreciate you sticking with us through this but I wanna thank you again for coming on the podcast. Is there anything else that you'd like to share or any comments you'd like to make?

Crystal: I just wanna say thank you so much for having us and just thank you for- It truly is such an honor to be part of it and to just play such a small role in seeing a face change when it has hope, when they didn't have before. I know it's a heavy subject and a lot of people back away from it, so thank you for being willing to invite us.

Marcus: Absolutely. Yeah. Tell people quickly where they can find you as well.

Crystal: and also if they wanna know more about it.

Marcus: Obviously, website

Crystal: Yep.

Marcus: Yeah. Very good and Facebook?

Crystal: Yep. Facebook,Instagram.

Marcus: You all still have products that people can purchase so that money goes towards the program?

Crystal: One hundred percent of our products goes directly back into helping our survivors.

Marcus: Okay, very good.

Crystal: Yeah.

Marcus: Well Crystal, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your information about this troubling topic, but you know it's been- I wish I could say it's been fantastic talking to you, but the reality is this is a pretty heavy topic. But thank you for being here, I do appreciate it.

Crystal: Thank you.

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