In 2014, Jonah’s founder, Aaron Tilbury, was a volunteer pastor who happened to be coaching a local high school baseball team in Spokane. One day before a ballgame, he noticed a player with no cleats and discovered the young man didn’t have any shoes either. In one way you could say Jonah's story started here; a simple act of kindness without leverage. Aaron did what many of us would have done… he simply bought the young man a pair of cleats.
Cleats from a discount store were all Aaron could offer, and it brought to mind all of the other kids like him and those he grew up with, ones who didn’t have cleats or money to participate, who felt marginalized, alone or ashamed. It was in that first season of meeting needs that he began to discover what a planted seed could do! One day, Ryan Douse, a counselor for the school reached out with an email of thanks and opened the door for a discussion. A few days later, the heart of Jonah would become began to grow from a story heard that day from the school’s Athletic Director as she detailed to Aaron and our first Jonah member Liberty Allen,the difficulties a student had faced that past winter, abused and thrown out of their home into the snow with nowhere to go.
So, Aaron wrote his cell number down on a post-it note and handed it to the Mrs. Harmer, the school's A.D. He told her that "...no matter what, wherever a kid was at..." if they were unsafe or alone… he would go and get them and bring them back to school. No strings attached.
Soon after, kids began calling from time to time for serious help, or just to chat. A few school counselors reached out when they had no place to go for housing that was safe. Aaron began asking folks from his church to "sponsor" students for $50 a month. With help from counselors and community members, 18 students total were “sponsored” in the 2014-15 school year!
It was exciting to see a seed begin to grow, Aaron never saw what was coming next. One day a young girl asked to her counselor to call Aaron, and her story awakened him to a darkness he had never known existed. Still one of the most gripping testimonies Aaron has ever heard, it was also one of the most tragic. And it was happening here. To our kids. Trafficking. Modern day slavery.
With a background in personal protection and executive security Aaron felt the need to do something. And soon one girl who needed help became two... and then more. A Relocation Team was formed. A Resource Binder was put together for school counselors and other agencies. Jonah began trying to share with teachers, pastors, and friends a glimpse of what was hiding in the dark: Kids were exploiting other kids. Law enforcement was struggling to build trust with victims and prosecute bad guys. Resources were almost non-existent. Agencies that were supposed to be helping on the front lines,were building models to profit from the growing epidemic. Schools were weary of discussing trafficking openly on campuses. Many churches felt it was too dark to talk about. The city did not have a plan to fight this...
Recognizing the need for both a Proactive and Reactive approach to trafficking, we began reaching out to women and children through a 24-hr Resource Line and basic needs. Light does indeed shine in the darkness. One morning, Kristi Burns with Life Center church reached out - their board had agreed to fund JP for a year at $1000 a month! It was just enough! As spring of 2016 rolled around Lighthouse opened - Spokane’s only operating Safe Home for child victims of sex trafficking! That player with no cleats?Is becoming a coach. One kiddo is now a General Manager at a restaurant...another student is on the way to college with a volleyball scholarship! Another young woman has started her own street ministry in Portland...The Jonah story is a story redemption. Of Love winning...
Jonah has always been about Freedom. Today our task remains the same. Slavery is real. As of June 2020, The Jonah Project has served more than 300 women and children, everywhere from Michigan to North Carolina to Rescue Operations across international borders. It is our intention to create avenues for survivors to heal as well as for a community to surround them with Love.
We continue to partner with local churches, schools and agencies such as Homeland Security and the FBI, as well as work on "Freedom Railroad" with groups like Justice Ministries, fighting for Freedom and be a voice for those who've had theirs taken away.