UNREACHED

Unshackling the Innocent: Ashlee Heiligman's Mission to End Child Trafficking in Thailand & Myanmar

October 11, 2023 UNREACHED Season 1 Episode 7
UNREACHED
Unshackling the Innocent: Ashlee Heiligman's Mission to End Child Trafficking in Thailand & Myanmar
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Our guest for today is Ashlee Heiligman from Global Child Advocates. She takes us on a compelling journey, painting a vivid picture of her divine calling to Thailand. We explore her transformative experiences, from witnessing the harrowing realities of forced labor and human trafficking, to her transition into leading a non-profit organization. Get ready to be inspired by Ashlee's story that’s a testament to faith, resilience, and the power of the human spirit.

We dive deep into the heart of Global Child Advocates' work, focusing on their efforts in high-risk communities. Ashlee shares stories of children rescued from the clutches of trafficking and their encounters with Jesus. We learn about the transformational journey these children embark on, and the incredible power of forgiveness. The second half of our discussion revolves around a social enterprise initiative involving Quinn Smith from Austin, Texas, and a potter from Thailand. They've partnered to create a pottery program that's not just about generating income, but also empowering women with essential life skills.

As we wrap up this emotionally charged episode, we delve into the importance of family-based care and its role in protecting vulnerable children. Ashlee shares some powerful stories that underscore the impact of their work. We also hear about a pottery program that's changing lives, one pot at a time. As challenging as their journey is, Ashlee leaves us with a message of hope. She emphasizes the power of faith, and how God can transform even the most heartbreaking stories into a force for good. This episode is a stirring reminder of the power of purpose, and the difference we can make when we step out in faith.

https://globalchildadvocates.org/

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Clint Hudson:

Hey friends, clint Hudson here, producer of the Unreached podcast. Today's episode requires a disclaimer. We're going to be heading to Myanmar and Thailand to have a conversation with our friend, Ashley Heiligman, who works for Global Child Advocates. Ashley is going to give us some information to help us to better understand the plight of forced labor, slavery and human trafficking that's happening in that area. We're going to touch on some sensitive subjects throughout the course of this episode and we pray that it truly impacts you and helps you to understand how God is at work in some of the darkest places in the world. So let's jump into this conversation with Dustin and Ashley now.

Dustin Elliott:

In Revelation 7, john shares his vision of heaven with members from every tribe, tongue, people and language standing in the throne room before the Lamb. And today there are still over 7,000 unreached people groups around the world. For the last six years, my family and friends have been on a journey to find, vet and fund the task remaining. Come journey with us to the ends of the earth as we share the supernatural stories of God at work for the men and women he has called to reach the unreached. Hello friends, welcome back to the unreached podcast. Dustin Elliott here with my friend Ashley Heiligman, with Global Child Advocates. Gca has been part of the Bless family and story almost since the beginning, going back five, six years now. We have done a lot of work together, focusing primarily on the Thailand-Memar border, and so I'm so happy to have you here today, ashley. Welcome to the show.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Thank you so much. It's been incredible to partner with the Bless Foundation and with all the different people that support you guys and just all the things that God has done through that partnership. That did start back in 2018 is when we first were beneficiaries, and it just has been. It's blown up since then.

Dustin Elliott:

Honestly, your story and the story of your involvement with this part of the world started 10 years or so before that right Like back in 2009. You want to walk us through that?

Ashlee Heiligman:

Basically, I think. So growing up I always thought missionaries were so amazing. I remember being in churches and hearing missionaries come and speak and just being blown away and really wondering why not everybody was signing up, just thinking it sounded like such an amazing adventure to go around the world. I loved Jesus from a very early age and so I just thought that it was so phenomenal and wanted to do that, as I when I got older and of course life happens and you know, through high school and college just had different distractions but really had a heart for people and wanted to serve in some way. So I went into social work and kind of went that route and worked at different residential treatment centers, focused on child protection in my work, but really was kind of waiting around to get married. I was, you know, after college wanting thinking that I couldn't do missions or I couldn't do anything for the Lord as a single person and go overseas, and so was kind of waiting and just didn't have that happen according to my plan. And so I remember a friend of mine one of my best friends had done this missions program and she said you can still do that. And I was working for actually a consulting company at the time for various things, but I thought, no, there's no way. I have an apartment, I have a car, I have all this huge list. I had a list of about 20 things that would need to happen for me to be able to go overseas, and I also thought it was too good to be true. The idea of moving overseas and serving the Lord full time, where someone else paid for you to do that, seemed crazy to me, like that. It was almost just too phenomenal, I guess. And so I ended up I had that list and I prayed about it and the Lord did all of those things like so quickly, just bam, bam, bam. All the things happened. And so I said yes, and I went to this missions program that was three months of training and then you did an outreach and my outreach was Thailand.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Gosh, I remember the first time that I went to Thailand I just was floored. I think the Lord broke my heart really quickly. I think I mean and by that I cried all the time we went to a city that was called Pattaya. It was a city in the south of Thailand, on the beach, but it wasn't a pretty beach and it was just full of sex tourists, like it was basically an entire city, that was a red light district. And so I, just throughout that whole the three months God took me to different places in Thailand and just broke my heart, just tore me up, I remember just seeing young girls on the arm of, you know, white Western men from all over, from Europe, from America, from Australia, and they were just there for that purpose. And so I just remember being really torn up about it and asking God what is this? Why am I so broken about this? But I just knew that he was calling me there.

Dustin Elliott:

There was one particular instance. There was a little girl that you saw, that you kind of got to see and know who she was. And then there was a comment that a guy made and, man, it just really rattled you. But what it did was it spurred you into prayer.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Like I mentioned, god completely broke my heart for Thailand and once you see those things, you just couldn't. I couldn't unsee them. And I remember going home from that, the three months was over and I didn't know what organization I would serve with. I just knew, and I was kind of looking into what everybody was doing and interviewed some organizations, and then this massive cyclone hit. It was Cyclone Nargis and it hit Myanmar really hard and I was at the village church at the time in in North Texas and they were taking a team of five people. They just said, hey, we have this water purification, which I know nothing about, but we have this system, this organization that does this, that wants to take five people from our church to go and live on people while also training them in this system. And so I was like, please, please, please, please and I remember calling them and, just you know, praying about that. And they selected me to go and I went.

Ashlee Heiligman:

We went to Thailand, we flew into Bangkok, but we went to the border because we were going to drive these systems in. So we were on the border in this city called Masaat and right when we got there, news was put out that they weren't allowing any aid, in that Myanmar just was closed off to any sort of support. There were ships with aid on off shore that they were not allowing to come in and provide support for people that were hit by this, this horrible cyclone. We were on the border and they wouldn't let us in to provide support. We had these systems, we were just waiting and we were literally watching footage of just dead bodies. There was just all these images from the people we were going to partner with and support and we were just getting these horrific images and we couldn't do anything about it, and so it was horrific.

Ashlee Heiligman:

The Myanmar government let 130,000 people die because of this cyclone, whereas there could have been support, just because there wasn't any kind of relief, and so it was really horrific situation. But I remember being in that little town and we were staying in this, the DK hotel, I think this hostel, and I remember being there was this little girl that was begging in the market and she was begging along the street. She had a little boy on her hip and she was about 10 years old, from what I could tell, and just looked really poorly kept, didn't have the right, you know, clothing and also just seemed to have some bruises on her.

Ashlee Heiligman:

I just there was just a lot of concern that I had for her. Her name was Ada and I remember praying for her but also trying to connect her to resources.

Ashlee Heiligman:

And my social work brain was okay, who's helping, how can we resource for her and how can we find out who's already here helping? But we bought her some clothes. We couldn't find an organization that was helping at the time. We were only there for about five days and I just remember going home and being so heartbroken and I remember the people who had provided support for us to go. I remember asking them to pray for Ada. Just ask I. You know I'm never going to see her again, but please pray that God will do something, that he'll intervene for this little girl with this little. Her brother was about two years old at the time.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Randomly, but not randomly, I get this email from a girl who had done that missions program with me. She sent this update email and I had no idea how she got my email. I had never emailed with her in the past, I just kind of an acquaintance and it was this email that said hey, everybody just wanted to update you on what God's doing in my life. Right now I'm living in Thailand and I'm working with this organization and we've just gone to the border town. We've been working with some street kids there and verified that there had been abuse in their family, and so we've just opened up a safe house for them.

Dustin Elliott:

Oh, wow.

Ashlee Heiligman:

And this was Mesa, the little town, the little border town. I just spent five days in, a few weeks earlier, and I wrote her back and I said hey, hey, teek, I'm. I'd love to know, is the little girl's name Ada? By chance, do you guys have a little girl named Ada? And she wrote me back right away yeah, we've got Ada. We have Ada and her siblings. We have a sibling who said that we've brought into our home. Yeah, god, god has been working in this situation the whole time.

Dustin Elliott:

Oh my gosh.

Ashlee Heiligman:

And it was so sweet of God to show me that he was working, and I knew that he was. I knew he would respond. I've always prayed for things, but for that to be such a direct picture of God intervening for something I had asked him to intervene for, knowing that he'd already lined all these things up. And so you know, I immediately emailed Teek and I said Okay, who are you working with?

Clint Hudson:

Yeah right.

Ashlee Heiligman:

What is this organization? I need to know. I've already felt called to work in Thailand.

Dustin Elliott:

I want to get in the game.

Ashlee Heiligman:

I need to. Yeah, this is it. I want to know. I'd been to Mesa and she connected me with the organization and from there it was kind of history. I mean we I sold all my stuff, raised support and moved to that to Mesa about a year later.

Dustin Elliott:

Yeah, that's, that's what happens next, you know it's interesting if listeners have been listening through kind of the first season. Here you see this two way approach. Some folks figure out where they're going to go, like Ashley did, where you had gone to a certain part of the world and you knew that's where you wanted to go. Some folks know they want to go. They don't know where they want to go yet. So they go to a sending agency and then they get trained Right.

Dustin Elliott:

And then they figure out okay, well, here's my situation. I'm married, I have three kids. That might make sense for you to be here, but not there, right? So, depending on what you're equipped with and what the need is, but there's different ways of getting there. Yeah, you knew where you were being called to go.

Dustin Elliott:

Right, you just didn't know yet the mechanism or the tools or who to partner with and how that was going to play out. But then, through this story God let you meet this little girl dislocated your heart for what was going on there you're praying for and then you get this. You know you, just I gotta think of the Psalms, right? You get this just confirmation of your prayer almost instantly, like boom.

Dustin Elliott:

Yes, all right, I'm here, I'm working here, I hear you, ashley, I see you, ashley, and I have a plan for you, and this is where it is. And you're like okay, I'm in, I'm going, yeah, so take us through. What happened next. You sold your stuff, you moved over there and here we go.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Yeah, I essentially over the last. So I've been with the organization for 14 years now, still with the same group. I was there, I lived in Thailand for two years and during that time I think God just showed, he just slowly exposed me to more and more of the darkness that is there and through individual stories, through individual lives, just the brokenness of even rescuing someone and seeing what that looks like when you've got, you know, eight abused children in the same home together.

Dustin Elliott:

Right.

Ashlee Heiligman:

And all those dynamics and as he was exposing me to things, I think the sweet part of Him, his character is just continually showing me the solutions and how we can do better, constantly growing our organization to upskill, to build our capacity to really love these kids really well, to care for them well, to use best practice to help them grow in every area of their lives, rather than just, you know, rescuing people out. We then. It's a long journey of restoration, and so I think over the last 14 years, I think he's just continually exposed me to more and more and then just has provided those solutions, and so it's definitely been a journey.

Ashlee Heiligman:

In my situation, I didn't go out to lead an organization, I didn't think of myself as ever running a large organization, and I think God has continually put things in situations in my path that have helped me grow in that ability to lead and helped me to trust Him more, and so, even as an organization where we've gone through different storms or we've gone through different difficult times, god has shown me specifically how walking and following the proverbs and following what he says is wisdom and leadership. It's helped me to depend on Him more and more in every situation, and so I lived in Thailand for, like I said, two years. I wasn't married when I went, but a childhood friend came to visit me, who I've known all my life and just love his family. I had gone home to speak at a church and he was there with his family, just visiting, and heard me speak and decided he wanted to come visit me, and so he came over and saw all the projects and we hit it off there you go.

Ashlee Heiligman:

It was very clear that that was that he was my guy, and so at the same time, my sister had adopted two children from Uganda and I knew that I was praying about already coming home. I was in a situation where I was running a drop-in center for kids from the street, kids like Aida. I was running that center and I had kind of a Burmese right-hand person who was translating and communicating. Also, I learned very quickly that what they actually needed was this massive team of Burmese nationals that were actually on the front line.

Ashlee Heiligman:

They were loving kids that loved the Lord, people that were serving in those communities that were really vulnerable, and so I knew that I needed to kind of get out of the way. I realized that God was using me there, but I felt like I could. Every time that I would go back to the US and talk about what we were doing, people would want to give and they'd want to support, and so quickly, all of my friends and family were supporting the work that we were doing and I realized that it would be better for me to be in the States raising funds, providing support and promoting the work and then training up and making sure that we had people on the front lines in those really vulnerable communities that were well-equipped, and so, where we had been a really low-resourced organization, I was able to. Then God used our friends and family to really fund it so that it could thrive there on the border.

Dustin Elliott:

And there you go, presenting once again very perfectly for the listeners what it means to be a global Christian Right. And we can't all be goers, we can't all be senders, we can't all be prayers. We can also be welcomeers. Right, we can also be people that are equipping others. So there's multiple roles to play and, as Todd said in episode one, right, the heart can't feel what the eye hadn't seen. You had gone, you had seen, you had experienced, you were equipped and ready. So when God did bring you back, yes, to get married and start a family praise of the Lord, right. But also to get back, because when you sat down and had coffee with somebody now they were about to get an experience from you.

Dustin Elliott:

I mean, I've had coffee with you. You can feel it all over you when you're sharing these stories, and I'm sure people can hear it right now as they're listening to you. So it's easy to see why God put you in the situations he did, prepared you the way he did. As you said, not all those steps worked out in the timing you might have thought they would have gone in through your college and 20s and so on, but ultimately his timing was perfect. Okay, so now you're in the game. You've figured out what organization to join and be a part of. You spent time in Thailand. You're raising resources. Now you've got to build out your team.

Ashlee Heiligman:

So let's talk about.

Dustin Elliott:

How did you go about building your team locally to serve there?

Ashlee Heiligman:

We recognized that we needed a larger team of Burmese nationals that could communicate directly first language with their own communities. These communities where we work are just high risk for trafficking. So you have traffickers that are targeting kids and these families and offering a warm bed, three meals a day, saying I'm going to provide educational opportunities, providing all these things in these communities. And so it became very clear that we need people on the front lines. We need people embedded into these communities because, at the same time, you have community members who have experienced all kinds of harassment from their own government violence, oppression that are terrified of authorities.

Ashlee Heiligman:

So, they're not going to go to the police if the child goes missing. They're not going to go to the police if a child is being abused. So you need a middleman almost to be their advocate.

Dustin Elliott:

As you know, we're here to tell stories and you've done a great job kind of opening us up to what got you started on the story. I think now everybody can kind of get a grasp of who the organization is and what you're there to do. You're there to work primarily with vulnerable children who are being trafficked, who are being sold a bill of goods and brought into a situation that they lose control over and they are now enslaved to and they can't earn their way out of and it's horrible Right. Walk us through a story of bringing a kid in. I know you've got a lot of success stories, but give us an example of what that would be like.

Ashlee Heiligman:

So essentially because we're embedded into these communities, we really are a safe ally for people to call. We get often a lot of calls. We have kind of a crisis hotline, but then also we just they have our cell numbers and so our staff are constantly brought in on cases. So whether that's from a community member who's seen something or they've identified a red flag that we've helped them look for, or whether it's a government child welfare worker who is, you know, has a case on their desk that they need to figure out a placement for, so it's. We kind of get referrals from all different places and from other organizations as well. Responding to that is very much. We want to work in cooperation with the local partners. So there's a local child protection network that we work with in, but whenever a GCA is the best fit for a situation, we typically respond ideally trying to help children grow up in a family.

Clint Hudson:

So if a family is possible.

Ashlee Heiligman:

If we're able to find a safe member, member that did not contribute, then we're able to help kids go, be supported, because that's where they can really find the most healing is through that support and we can help strengthen that family for them. But then we definitely have situations where there's just not, particularly if it's if it has happened within Myanmar and they've come across the border. Quite often it's really difficult to trace a family member, especially with documentation issues and all of that, and so we have an emergency shelter, so a shelter where we have girls that come in that have been through trafficking or they have been through exploitation and abuse and so the stories, like I said, it's a very it's a long journey. It's not, I think. Quite often we talk about trafficking and rescues and it seems very helicopter-ish and you know, run in and save and then everything's great and it's beautiful and it's good, but if you think about the trauma that they've experienced and the aftermath and how that impacts every single aspect of their life and the way they view the world, so even before this podcast, I was thinking through and I knew this was about unreached and miracles and the miraculous and seeing God, all the things he's done, and I think the thing that he was showing me is how much, while I haven't seen the blind see or the lame physically walk like prayed for them and then they got up and walked, we have seen that so much in individual lives of just complete, total transformation, where they literally cannot see the next step forward. They literally cannot do anything for themselves or walk their next step and then encounter Jesus and we see transformation and we see that they can actually conceptualize and even forgive their perpetrator, which is, you know, it's so hard to conceptualize from the outside, looking in.

Ashlee Heiligman:

But in particular, we had, we had two girls that had been both abused by their father and then from their traffic to several different places in Myanmar and exploited, and when they came into our care they just had everything, all of the symptoms of abuse and exploitation from what they had experienced, and even our girls didn't want to be around them. You know, they were not likable, they were not hygienic, they were, they had all the things that were symptomatic of just the trauma that they had experienced, and so I mean, for years it was a really hard road with them. Then we, over and over, our team has become so much more evangelistic over the years, but, like the more cases that they work, they've always shared about Jesus. They've always talked about who he is, but it's become more and more like.

Ashlee Heiligman:

You have to know this you have to understand, because this is where you're going to find healing, because we find that when girls don't have a realization of that, it's just so much harder to help them to see differently and so-.

Dustin Elliott:

Yeah, your identity is not in who you were. It's not in who that person that took advantage of you made you feel like you are. It's not wrapped up in that.

Dustin Elliott:

Your identity is in Jesus who loves you and values you, beyond your possible beliefs right now. Right, and to get them to have that hope and that shift and that spiritual transformation. As you say, and we talk about this all the time, Jesus meets the physical need and the spiritual need, but in this case, you know, I think a lot of times biblically like he would address the spiritual need first, when the crowd really wanted him to see the physical first, but in this case it sounds like, without addressing the spiritual, the physical has a really hard time getting there.

Ashlee Heiligman:

The bitterness can take root of why did this happen to me? Why am I why was I the victim of this situation? And so, without understanding that God is going to work it all for good, and it is horrific, and it is not acknowledging that they have suffered greatly and that they are that this is not right, that this is not should not have happened to you, but then being able to see past it, that there is hope, that at some point I'm going to see why this I'm going to see where God is using this in my life and how this is a part of the story that he's writing and why that story is valuable. And if you don't understand that it's it can be so overwhelming to get consumed by remaining as the victim and never coming out as a survivor.

Dustin Elliott:

Let's talk about the other side. We've we there is a survivor side to this. They are happy-.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course, yeah, and they still a lot of these stories.

Dustin Elliott:

A lot of what you do after the initial phases are you start to you start to give them a training and equipping for a career right.

Ashlee Heiligman:

For a way to take care of themselves.

Dustin Elliott:

I think a lot of these folks end up staying in the business kind of right Because it's happened to them. So now they want to go save others. But then some as well, like tell us about Sojourn Studio and other things that y'all have put together on the next step side.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Sojourn has been a phenomenal program for girls that have come out of our shelter program. Because we have we launched it in 2017 because we were able to help girls out of situations, help single moms, help women that were being exploited or abused and all of in those kind of situations. We were able to get them out of a situation, but we didn't have great ways to empower them forward and so really knew that social enterprise, knew that dignified income opportunities and income generation is what was needed, but as a social worker, I just didn't know how to make that happen. So I had lots of ideas and the Lord really brought the right people together at the right time, and so Sojourn Studio has been such a huge success and it's completely Jesus like completely the Lord. So he brought-.

Ashlee Heiligman:

There was a woman who was already looking to work with us and serve with us in Thailand, who had a pottery background and we had been in conversations. At the same time, I was connected to a woman here in Austin, texas, who is an artist with Remnant Studios. Her name is Quinn Smith and she had a passion. She was giving all of her profits to anti-trafficking organizations, so she had started supporting us. This potter was coming and we knew we wanted to have a social enterprise. And so God just put it all together and Quinn went over to Thailand. Her skill set was porcelain, ceramic jewelry.

Ashlee Heiligman:

At the same time that Sarah came from China, quinn went over to Thailand and trained all of our artisans in porcelain. It's this bone china jewelry that is gorgeous, so it's like a fair trade product that is actually really beautiful and sometimes you have that's not always the case. Quinn also knew Jessica Honegger from Noonday and at the same time Noonday decided to partner with us when we were brand new. It has completely blown up from there. We used to meet and we started meeting in a carport at the beginnings and literally I mean, there's rainy season, there's hot season it was dusty. We did everything we could to make it a good environment for the girls, but they loved being there. It was just this fun community and very loud. They would sing while they make the jewelry and all of that. But then, when Noonday partnered with us, our profits skyrocketed and we were able to build of a professional studio.

Ashlee Heiligman:

I was just there last month and it's gorgeous and runs like a well-oiled machine and we continue to fill orders for Noonday. And then we also sell private label. I mean we sell retail and wholesale as well to other partners. But that has been such a God thing that has allowed us to give opportunity to women because, like you said, they come even the day artisans that we have because they are so successful and they make they have such a high production rate.

Ashlee Heiligman:

We're able to then also offer this apprentice program, which is for girls that have come out of our center and so they meet less. They meet more part time, but it's more of a program where we have a curriculum that we run through with them that is talking all about life skills, about online safety, about hygiene, all the different things that sometimes, when they come out of these situations, they need tangible lessons on, and so they come for the program and quite often sojourn because they're working with the clay. It almost becomes a form of art therapy where they wouldn't maybe open up. In a counseling session. They will talk across the table with girls that have experienced similar things with their social worker nearby or they're you know the director close by where they can get some constructive feedback. So it's a really beautiful program that I've just I've been so blessed by to be a part of.

Dustin Elliott:

There's a story on your website called they Are my Dream Family. Will you tell us that story?

Ashlee Heiligman:

Yeah, yeah. So we have a little boy that had grown up. We had had an infant home, so essentially we opened that first safe house and then, because we were offering that service in this area of such high need, we started getting all these referrals and calls. So it quickly turned into four homes and never had the intention of running children's homes, but just that's kind of it just started to happen and there wasn't foster care, there wasn't adoption. We didn't know, kind of how us to respond, and so we had opened an infant home and had about, I guess, a total of nine kids at any given time because it was such high needs.

Ashlee Heiligman:

After we transitioned, we kind of learned from other partners that we were able to transition into family-based care, and so we were able to find, we learned how to recruit families through the local church and really place children in families, because we knew that they needed a family, not just like this shelter opportunity, and so we wanted them to have more of that family dynamic and we placed all of the children into families, except for just a handful that we hadn't found placements for.

Ashlee Heiligman:

And this little boy, he has some specific, some special needs and is a little bit on the spectrum. He was one that we've had a placement before and it hadn't worked out and so we had been talking with there was one of our staff members that actually had felt like the Lord was leading him to take in this child had really had been praying about it, had he and his wife had been talking, they had biological kids, but they had been talking about it and praying about it, and so it was just really neat, because the child already knew this, this staff member. And so it's a delicate conversation to have of you're leaving this one caregiver and you're moving into a different family dynamic and how do you feel about that and all of those conversations. But when that went down with this little boy, he just lit up and he said that's my dream family.

Ashlee Heiligman:

I've always wanted to be in that family, and we had no idea that that was what he was thinking. There wasn't ever. Nobody ever asked him before which family he would pick, if he could pick any family. Because, that's a really hard question to ask a kid, and so that was just a blessing.

Dustin Elliott:

There's another story on your website called no Exit Strategy, and this is about a young mom who was married at a young age but her husband had left and gone to work somewhere else and she was worried that maybe he was living another life. And sure enough, unfortunately, she confirmed that he was and he left her for another woman and basically just started another family.

Ashlee Heiligman:

So here she is with their baby, and I think she was pregnant as well with another, and now her options are gone and she showed up right yeah, yeah, this is a story that is so common to the work that we do, and I know in that situation you have a mom that is completely desperate and doesn't realize the important role that she plays. Maybe it doesn't value herself, doesn't value her life, doesn't value what she contributes to her children, and a lot of what we do in that situation specifically is help her realize that you are who God designed for this child, that God doesn't make mistakes. He didn't accidentally let you birth, have life conceived in your body. He doesn't make mistakes in that, and so we believe that God designed the family to be the best child protection. So what we did in that situation is we come alongside that mom and help her to realize how valuable she is and how perfectly designed she is for that child, how that child looks in her eyes, and that that builds resilience in her child, that every single thing that she does during the day builds attachment and confidence and wholeness in her child, and it can't be replaced, it can't be replicated by any program, and so our biggest goal in that kind of dynamic is helping that mom recognize that I'm enough and that I can do this. And we all need that, every mom that you talk to will tell you that we need other people to tell us we can do this, that if we don't know what we're doing, that we can do it, that we're enough and that we're who God designed for our children. And so in that situation, coming alongside that mom with even just starting out with physical support, so concrete support, where we're providing dry fruit food, where we're dropping off food every week or every month and we're making sure she has what she needs to just stay mentally capable of caring for her kids and staying in the right mindset, nourishing her children, and then we're coming alongside with parenting, training, support calls they call us all, call our stuff all the time of just those questions that come up Quite often.

Ashlee Heiligman:

We have migrant families that they've moved across the border and they don't have the support system that they had back at home. But they've had to move because their village was burned or their house was bombed or there was some sort of violence that was happening, and so they don't have that social network. But they'll move kind of out into the boondocks because they don't wanna get arrested by the police, they don't wanna be out, they don't wanna be visible. It's very different than the situation at our border, because this is legitimately a war that is next door, that is the government killing their own people, and so it is a very violent, very unpredictable situation that's happening in Myanmar, and so you have people fleeing looking for help, and so, basically, these moms quite often just don't have a social network or support, and so coming alongside them is really the best way, because they are our best asset in protecting their children.

Dustin Elliott:

Tell us more about the physical location you're in. So if somebody's listening and they haven't looked up Thailand, myanmar, they don't understand exactly what does it look like, because there is a war right next door and there's destruction and it's tough. It's not like it's either coming in and checking into a hotel.

Ashlee Heiligman:

It's a mixture. So there's wealth and there's investment. So Thailand has put millions of dollars into investment on the border region. They've turned it into a major economic zone. So even when I lived there, what I saw this last time that I was just there, a month ago, was vastly different than what I experienced.

Dustin Elliott:

It's getting bigger and darker.

Ashlee Heiligman:

And even across the border. So, because Myanmar is so fractured, you have investors from all over and I won't name countries, I don't think I should name countries on this podcast Investors that are investing on the Myanmar side. There are six huge casinos that have just opened across the border that are now it's almost like they've because Bangkok is an oversaturated market, they've moved the market to the border area, and so this is a newer development that in the last 14 years, I haven't seen it be as bad as it is currently. I have more of an urgency right now than I have even in previous years.

Ashlee Heiligman:

And for this region. That is saying a whole lot honestly. These casinos are right across the border and they literally have steps that go down into the river, so people are coming across the border to use the services, the gambling and the prostitution they're in the casino, in the casinos.

Ashlee Heiligman:

it's like a red light district right along the border on the Myanmar side, and because, it's so fractured they're able to operate without any kind of accountability or repercussion of any of the actions or any of the crime that is happening. So you have drug trafficking, human trafficking, every kind of exploitation happening right there along the borderline.

Dustin Elliott:

And it's all wrapped up in a big, nice casino with a bunch of lights and dings and bells going off and it looks like it's just normal life it's just the way things go, but the darkness happening at the bottom of the steps and across that river it's horrible.

Ashlee Heiligman:

The communities that we work in are more vulnerable than ever and we haven't seen this trafficking, we haven't seen the movement into Myanmar. It's always been that Mesa has been a transit to a larger city, to be, exploited.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Myanmar was always a source country for trafficking and it seems like it's becoming more of a destination country on the border area. It is that the darkness is getting darker and it makes me so grateful that our teams are there and that they're able to respond, and they're already viewed as a resource, like as an ally and a trusted partner with these communities, and so we've just opened up three new two new community centers but we're looking at the third that are right along the border that are a resource for families to come in to learn about trafficking, to learn about the threats, to learn about how to protect their own children and to just get support when they're in that crisis situation, like that story that you were just talking about.

Dustin Elliott:

Yeah, so that's a great segue. So, as the situation on the ground is changing, both with the war and with the casinos and with the, just the general man, that was a really profound statement that you thought that it was a source country. I hate that. I even know what that means now.

Dustin Elliott:

But a source country for trafficking. That's wow. But now it's becoming a destination for it because of the lack of oversight and government control. Right, because you can get away with a lot more there, maybe than even next door in Thailand and other places, and so that's kind of like, well, we don't even have to outsource them now, we can just do it here.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Right.

Dustin Elliott:

But with those new challenges, that means God's got to be continually revealing new solutions to you, which you know he has been doing.

Ashlee Heiligman:

Right.

Dustin Elliott:

Right. So what's next? What does GCA do next?

Ashlee Heiligman:

That's such a great question. I think what is really neat is just that he had already put on our heart the last year, the year before, just these community-based centers. So we have already early childhood development programs. We have a large center that we have right next door to Sojourn Studio, and we have had community teams that are engaging in communities all over the region and really they're there as a resource. They're responding to crisis calls, to abuse reports, all of that, or trafficking reports, things like that.

Ashlee Heiligman:

What we really felt called to was opening these community-based centers and they're embedded into the community. So we purchased land. We just bought land at the beginning of June, we purchased it and we're starting to build at the beginning of this next month, and so right now it's basically just a roof and we're going to be building a much larger structure, but we already have people that are walking from all over to come to these centers, and so it was really neat when we were just there to be able to just share with this community what it's for, to share who we are and what motivates our engagement with them, and just that these centers are for them and that they're a resource that we would see that their kids are protected and safe. Yeah, definitely so.

Dustin Elliott:

Prayers up for the centers. And obviously there's an opportunity for anybody listening that wants to partner. You can certainly help fund these and help equip these with the right resources that you all need to take care of these kids. You've had it on your heart or put on your heart to expand and go beyond EMR, thailand, and so you've also got a geographical change or shift happening where you want to take some of those solutions you've learned somewhere else. Where's that going?

Ashlee Heiligman:

Great question.

Ashlee Heiligman:

So essentially, if I back up a little bit and say, when I first got into this work, I remember I was very it was very much motivated in anti-trafficking and what I thought that was was rescue, immediate response, getting girls out.

Ashlee Heiligman:

And what I've learned over the years is that what we strongly believe is that God's design for child protection is family.

Ashlee Heiligman:

What we're doing in Mesa is going upriver and building up families to keep kids safe from getting into trafficking in the first place In Tanzania.

Ashlee Heiligman:

What we've then learned through that is that kids that are in children's homes are even higher, at a higher vulnerability rate for trafficking and exploitation because they don't have a family that is supporting them, that is a resource and an advocate for them, and so we've found that those rates are really high. And so we're going even further, upriver to see kids that are have already been orphaned, that are growing up in children's homes, to see them grow up in families, so placing them into families. And so that's going to be done through a. We have this phenomenal leader there named Atosia, who is working directly with other organizations that want to help their children grow up in families, and they're going to be basically helping those, those children's homes, find families for the kids, connect, reunify children with their families if they have kinship cares, all those kind of resources so that those kids can be saved, because in Tanzania, when they age out at 18, they have to leave the facility.

Ashlee Heiligman:

And so we've provided training already. Initial training for 28 orphanages or children's homes that are like this is we need a better solution. We need to figure out how to help these children have a long term solution for their lives and grow up in a family. And so we're beginning those conversations of how can we help you? We want to help, we want to be a support, and so that's a team of social workers there that are focused on that. We have really strong statistics here in the States for kids that have been rescued out of trafficking and the reality of them having been the percentages are so high of them having been in foster care or in the care of the state at some point, and so we know that there's a correlation there, and then we just don't have all the numbers internationally, but we know that those are. It's not do I care about the orphan or do I care about trafficking. It's the same kids.

Dustin Elliott:

Right.

Ashlee Heiligman:

It's those kids that are at risk for trafficking, and so that's where we're we're trying to help people. Even our tagline is reimagining child protection globally, because the systems have been broken for so long and we've been kind of responding within a broken system, and so we're hoping to help. Even we're working with government, we're working at the government level, and our director in Tanzania came from child welfare and social like from the government background, and so he's helping us to then connect in, to help even shift how the entire system responds to children that are vulnerable. I think one of the things that got to show me more recently is just in my role. You know we do communications, we create annual reports, all that kind of stuff, and so I see thousands of pictures every day. I just see.

Ashlee Heiligman:

You know they'll send, they'll always uploading pictures of what's happening in the programs and I think it can kind of seem like nameless faces and then you're in light of all the darkness.

Ashlee Heiligman:

It can get discouraging. But I think God has made it so clear to me that he is as much as he pursues me on a daily basis and wants my heart and my attention. I know that he knows every single person in those pictures, that it's not just a see a faces, but every single person in Masat in Tanzania, every kid that is growing up in a children's home that doesn't have a family, every single person that we engage with, that he knows every single thing about them and that he's pursuing them just as fiercely as he's pursuing me and to me, that gives me so much hope and encouragement for, even in the midst of where it's getting darker, that that is working so much behind the scenes. And there's so many things that I don't get an email about or I don't get a report of, of just ways that he is transforming lives in the midst of all of it.

Dustin Elliott:

So if you're listening today and your heart is broken, as ours is, for vulnerable children on the world and for the trafficking that's going on, and you want to be a part of just getting in there and mixing it up and changing the future for these kids, globalchildadvocatesorg right. And how else can people get in touch with and get updates and follow you?

Ashlee Heiligman:

Yeah, we're on Facebook and Instagram and you know anyone can always email me at Ashley at globalchildadvocatesorg.

Dustin Elliott:

So perfect. Ashley, would you pray for us on the way out? Yeah, definitely.

Ashlee Heiligman:

God, I just thank you so much for your goodness and I thank you for how you allow us to be a part of what you're doing in the world, and I thank you, for all the things we don't understand, that we can just trust you in the midst of it, and I thank you that you are constantly showing us that just following your word and obeying it step by step, and listening to the commandments, and just even the instruction that you give us, that it will allow us to be used by you in a way that we can't even imagine.

Ashlee Heiligman:

So, god, I thank you for this podcast. I pray for each person listening, god, that you would just expand their heart for you, god, that they would see themselves in the story, that they would see themselves and that they would ask you what next and they would ask you what to do. I just thank you that you have people listening to all of this that are excited to see how you're moving where it can seem so dark. God, I thank you that you are always moving and that we can trust you in that. We love you. Jesus name Amen.

Dustin Elliott:

And amen. Thank you so much, my friend. Thank you for listening to Unreached. Our sincere desire is that what you've heard today will cause you to see the mission of God differently and you're rolling it more clearly. If this adds value for you and we hope it does would you please rate and review the podcast wherever you listen. Also, share with your family, your friends, your church, your life group, small group, d group, wherever you do life, and if you want to connect with us, find us on Instagram at unreachedpodcast, or email us at unreachedpodcastgmailcom.

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