Imagine surviving human trafficking, sexual abuse, assault, domestic violence, and gang exploitation all before the age of 13. Pastor Gwendolyn Cook sees it every day. She is the founder and director of Women Walking in the Spirit (WWITS) Girls Mentoring Program in Camden, NJ. Her organization works with young girls returning from juvenile detention at Hayes Secure Care Facility for Girls in Bordentown, NJ. The girls have survived severe and often multiple forms of trauma.
I’ve worked with Pastor Cook for over a year, helping WWITS to frame a narrative for their work and building a program model so they can gain new funding sources. WWITS is one of dozens of grassroots organizations across the country that I’ve had the honor to support over the last year and a half. These groups are providing healing for communities wrecked by violence, victimization, and trauma. I help them build capacity to access and maintain federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) funding, preparing them for long-term success and creating more resources for healing. I am most inspired by the many groups who work with little to no funding, with volunteers as the lifeline — groups like Pastor Cook’s.
This profile is part of EJUSA’s series on National Crime Victims Rights Week.
I recently spoke with Pastor Cook about victim advocacy, trauma, and the most pertinent needs of girls who have experienced trauma and victimization.
What does Victim Advocacy Mean to You?
It means I have to be there. I have to hold these girls’ hands and try my best to walk them out of the traumatic situation they’ve had to experience. I have to continue until the point where they can breathe again. They’re alive, but they aren’t breathing. They have no life.
Victim advocacy is climbing out of bed at 3am to show up at the hospital or police department after a girl’s been beaten. I tell these girls I will be there through their successes and failures.
That’s why my number is available to everyone, all of the time.
What’s the greatest need for girls in Camden?
Our girls need safe spaces. Girls who are in juvenile detention get an additional charge while in detention, so they can stay in jail longer. They have terrible home lives, no support system or services to address their trauma or victimization. We are literally burying our girls in Camden. They come home to the same situations, and many fall victim to gang violence or domestic violence. This year alone we’ve lost two girls to violence. Neither of them reached the age of 17.
Many of our girls wouldn’t have made it without WWITS’s support. But they don’t have safe housing. It’s the missing piece. They are going back to the same home where they’ve been abused, the same neighborhoods where gangs have forced them into membership. They need a space to process their grief, have peer support, engage in healing with trained staff, and a chance to determine their future.
How are you filling the gap of housing?
It’s exciting. Someone just donated a camp with beds for girls returning from detention. It even has a lake and lots of open space for the girls to relax and heal. WWITS needs to raise funds for staff, sheets, and other supplies to make the space functional, but we’re on our way. On a daily basis though, we’re being creative. I’m calling shelters and temporary housing communities in other states. Sometimes I drive girls to a partner organization in Philadelphia. We do what needs to be done. EJUSA has been a great support in building our capacity to access funding. It’s a process, but we are hopeful and working hard to get the camp up and running.
What other amazing things are you doing?
WWITS is currently writing a book, “Can Anybody Hear Me?” It’s a collection of stories from girls in the program who’ve been incarcerated, trafficked, abused, raped, and their trauma. It also tells the backstory of how I started working with girls within juvenile detention. You cannot imagine what these girls have been through by the age of 13. Right here in Camden. How can we stay quiet about this? We can’t. I won’t.