Once, she was someone's little girl. • Beaten and raped, she was dumped on a Tampa street to die. At 12, she spoke no English, had no documentation and a great fear of law enforcement. • Tracy Beegen, 35, says this little girl is just one of many children whose childhood has been stolen. As a volunteer for Bridging Freedom, Beegen strives to raise awareness of human sex trafficking by speaking to groups and volunteers. • Beegen is one of the organization's volunteers who speaks to groups and church members about this silent epidemic of abducted children used as sex slaves.
"My eyes have been opened through all I have learned through research,'' said Beegen, who helps Bridging Freedom with its mission of healing children who have been victimized.
"I used to think somewhere else, not in our neighborhoods.''
She discovered that homes are set up in affluent neighborhoods to house the abducted children and when neighbors get suspicious to all the traffic in and out the abductors close up shop and move elsewhere.
Beegen balances her volunteer efforts with caring for her family. She and her husband, Rockford, and children Rylie, 15, and Giovanni, 13, moved to FishHawk three years ago after he served a tour of duty in Hawaii. It was while stationed there that she became aware of the alarming issue.
"My heart has always been with kids,'' she said. "And these are not throw-away children. They need a lot of help when they are rescued.''
Beegen combines a passion for children with education and her Christian faith in longing to help the victims.
"They do not belong in prison or in group homes or foster care,'' she said. "These places are not equipped to handle these children.''
Beegen earned her bachelor's degree from Columbia College in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. She also holds master's degrees in counseling and clinical psychology. She is working toward her doctorate in psychology at the Florida School of Professional Psychology in Tampa.
Laura Hamilton founded Bridging Freedom in 2011 after serving as a member of the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking.
"I saw the need for a long-term safe home campus for these rescued children,'' she said.
The nonprofit organization is seeking 50 to 100 acres within Hillsborough or Pasco counties to build its campus. Bridging Freedom hopes to provide a safe, secure campus with traditional homes and space for outdoor activities.
Clinical therapists, medical care and therapeutic recreation such as art, equine and garden therapy will supplement the program. Board-certified teachers will provide education, and life skills will be taught so the clients can adjust to life in society.
Hamilton said until then great strides are being made in other areas, including working with health care providers.
"It is going to take the whole community to make this happen,'' she said. "This is not a feel-good cause — it is very ugly.''
Children, boys and girls, as young as 12 perform sex acts with men up to 15 to 30 times a night, Beegen said.
"Their life span is three to four years after they are abducted," she said.
According to a report by the U.N. office on drugs and crime, sex traffickers in the United States earn $32 billion annually.
In 2010, only a handful of long-term therapeutic safe homes existed in the United States. Bridging Freedom is being mentored by one of the most successful programs, Wellspring Living in Atlanta.
Local and federal law enforcement agencies rescue 25 to 30 girls each year in the Tampa Bay area. These children develop severe mental and physical issues requiring specialized care and therapy.
Hamilton said more volunteers are needed like Beegen.
"Tracy rose to being a top leader very quickly. She is a very special person who made time in her life for this organization.''
In addition to volunteering, going to school and teaching Sunday School at a Spanish church in Brandon, Beegen loves to spend time outdoors with her family.
"We like paintball, hiking and hanging at the beach,'' said Beegen, who attends FishHawk Fellowship. "We just like to be together as a family.''
Rockford Beegen is very proud of his wife.
"I am happy that she can fulfill this passion of hers through this,'' he said.
Michelle Jones can be reached at [email protected]