Almost exactly two years ago, Jade met her new baby sister.
She cradled the child in her arms, rubbed her cheek against the infant’s soft head and then left her family, intending to never speak to them again. The 18-year-old was living with her boyfriend and, due to a complex range of issues, pushed her family away.
A year later, she still hadn’t spoken to them. They didn’t know where she was or what she was doing. But after all that time on the run, after becoming addicted to meth, after pushing all of her family out of her life, after being forced into prostitution and abused, stalked and nearly killed by her boyfriend, Jade reached out to the only comfort she figured she had left in the world.
Traveling more than 1,200 miles from her home in San Diego, she broke. She didn’t grow up in a particularly religious home, but she prayed.
“I just cried out to God,” she said.
For the faithful, it’s difficult to determine how God interacts in their daily lives — what is heavenly work and what is random chance. But a month after Jade’s desperate prayers, she found herself in Casper.
And something happened.
Jade grew up playing on the beaches of San Diego. A creative kid, she always found joy in drawing and writing. But her family life was complex. When she was a child, a family member sexually assaulted her, and she spent time in and out of mental health institutions.
When she turned 18, she dropped out of high school and moved in with her boyfriend. The man, who was 30, was kind to her at first.
But the relationship quickly spiraled downward. He became abusive. He got Jade hooked on meth and soon began forcing her into having sex with others for money or drugs. If she didn’t comply, he would threaten to hurt or kill her.
She tried to leave the relationship multiple times, but he stalked her. Vacillating between sweetness, name-calling and threats, he sent her messages and showed up in places where she was. After she deleted him on social media, he created fake profiles impersonating people she knew and attempted to connect with her again. He sent messages like “You’re not allowed to leave me.”
“He hunted me down everywhere,” she said.
Seeking refuge from the violence, Jade took to the road with some people she knew. For a few months, they wandered the West. Jade became involved with another man, who was kind but unstable.
While she and the man traveled through Casper, Jade stayed a few nights at the emergency women’s shelter at the Wyoming Rescue Mission. While there, some of the women noticed how skinny she was and became worried about her lifestyle. They told her she could get help. They suggested she join the organization’s long-term recovery program, which helps women get back on their feet.
“I was really tired,” she said. “I was alone. I was really ashamed of the things my ex made me do.”
But with the help of the women and the shelter staff, Jade entered the program and began the hard work of healing. When she checked in to the shelter, Jade couldn’t see herself in the future.
She couldn’t imagine herself still alive in five or 10 years.
Now, almost exactly a year after that day, Jade is healthy and excited for what her life could hold. In stability and safety, she’s been able to grow.
She thinks of other people she knows who continued on that path — at least one girl is now dead. She thinks of the time she almost overdosed and died. She thinks of her boyfriend’s threats to kill her. She thinks of the dangers she barely escaped.
A member of the Rescue Mission’s discipleship program, she spends her days attending classes, participating in counseling and working at Rescued Treasures, the organization’s thrift store.
The program helps women after addiction or deep-rooted trauma, said Jackie Pickinpaugh, director of the Mission’s Women’s Services. Generally there are about eight women in the program at a time. The staff connects the women with community resources and teaches life skills.
“If they can build on that, then when the storms of life come around, they won’t be floundering or drowning,” Pickinpaugh said.
The women live together in a small space above the women’s emergency shelter. The space is warm and homelike, filled with comfortable furniture and decorations featuring Bible verses.
The healing process has not always been easy for Jade, however. Living in small quarters with multiple other women creates conflict. Running into others who have relapsed is hard while she’s in recovery. Numerous times, she’s fought the urge to run.
“My whole life I’ve been a runner,” she said.
But each time, she decided to stay. She’s grown roots here, both in her friends and in her faith. She always had a connection with God, though latent, she said. That relationship has bloomed and given her strength during those moments of doubt.
Even Pickinpaugh noted Jade’s resolve in sticking to both to the program and her beliefs.
“She’s been faithful, faithful, faithful,” Pickinpaugh said. “And I’m proud of her.”
Jade is just beginning to confront the trauma of being sex trafficked. For more than a year, she was ashamed of what the ex did to her. But she’s learning how to process those feelings with the help of her counselor.
“For a long time I pushed a lot of that stuff down,” she said Thursday, wearing a cheery pink dress and sitting in the shelter’s comfortable living room.
Although she was estranged from her family for more than a year, Jade has found a new community of support in the other women at the shelter and the staff, like Pickinpaugh.
Soon she’ll travel to Utah to attend job training and eventually earn her nursing assistant certification. She’s always wanted to work in the medical field — helping people was her goal before she lost herself.
After she’s done, she plans to return to Casper and her newfound family at the shelter and the church she attends every Sunday. She never expected to end up in Wyoming, but it has become a home.
Like a true Wyomingite, she even caught her first trout in July. After giving it a kiss, the others told her to throw it back in the river — so she chucked it like a football across the water.
“They didn’t specify what that meant,” Jade laughed Thursday as Pickinpaugh told the story. The women in the shelter love her laugh. It’s contagious, they said.
Most of all, she’s looking forward to rebuilding her relationships with her family. After not speaking to her mother for more than a year, the two now talk on the phone every day.
“I tell her everything now,” Jade said, with a shy smile.
Now that Jade is clean and beginning to heal, she looks forward to the day when she can cradle her sister again. The girl turned 2 on Wednesday.
Someday, Jade will nuzzle into the child’s hair and hold the toddler’s hand. She’ll feel the warmth of small arms hugging her neck.
And then, finally, Jade won’t feel like running.