In 2014, Jonah’s founder Aaron was out of work, volunteering as a pastor at The Bridge Church and as a coach for the Rogers 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 he and his family could offer, and it brought to mind all of the other kids, like he’d been in school, 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! This pair of cleats turned into a few pizzas and some talks with a few players after practice. A few other kids taken to a Dairy Queen for a burger and a bit of shared life. Aaron and his wife Bindi opened their home to a few students and simply tried to love who was in front of them at the time. One day, Ryan, 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 (back from Africa, she would become Jonah's first Lighthouse leader!) the difficulties a student had faced that past winter, abused and thrown out of their home into the snow with nowhere to go.
How many other kids in the community were facing similar circumstances, or worse? At-risk and facing what we have come to know is an easier target for predators and a slew of other complications from addiction to mental health issues. So, Aaron wrote his cell number down on a post-it note and handed it to the school faculty. He told them that "...no matter what, wherever a kid was at, if they were unsafe or alone… he would go and get them and bring them home. No strings attached."The Jonah Project was born.
Soon after, Aaron at down with his friend and pastor, Andrew, from The Bridge Church and began to explore ways to engage the assistance from their church, and pray about what this project might look like. The Hillyard area was impoverished and so many times it seemed like the general feeling in the city was that the area was beyond salvage. How could we meet kids where they are at - empower and encourage them and in some cases get them to hold on just one more day?
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. The first plan was in place - Aaron began asking folks to "sponsor" students for $50 a month. With help from counselors, his church family and few other people’s support, 18 students total were “sponsored” in the 2014-15 school year! The $50/month was used for GSL cards and shoes, water bills, prom tickets and eye glasses, as well as for the occasional Dairy Queen or a cup of coffee just to talk about life. We've built some relationships that last to this day.
It was exciting to see a seed begin to grow, but neither Aaron nor the growing team knew what was coming. 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 powerful stories Aaron has ever heard, it was also one of the most tragic. And it was happening here. To our kids. After spending most of his life in some pretty terrible places, from his childhood to his career in personal protection, it was a tough internal battle to willingly head “back in” to an environment you feel like you'd spent your life trying to escape. But Freedom is a powerful thing once it has been experienced. And faith in Christ strengthened in him a resolve to share that Freedom with others… no matter the cost.
By this time, Aaron’s wife and a few friends in the church family had rallied around The Jonah Project. A Relocation Team was formed with a retired police officer and some mental health nurses. 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. Parents and local gangs were involved. Law enforcement was struggling to build trust with victims and prosecute bad guys. Resources were almost non-existent. The community had no idea this was happening. Children were being called prostitutes and in some cases were being denied services. Women were afraid to reach out for help. Agencies were building models to profit from the growing epidemic. Schools didn’t want the topic broached on campuses so counselors and kids alike didn’t know the depth of the issue. Many churches felt it was too dark to talk about. The city did not have a plan to fight this or any reliable numbers, while some citizens still didn’t consider it a public health issue… and the topic of “Human Trafficking” itself was so heavy that time and time again the temptation for volunteers to give up was knocking on the door.
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. Soon after some red flags were spotted, and a young girl who had been placed in a host family came forward for help. Jonah completed its first placement outside Spokane and began connecting with what local resources were available. It was now that Jonah learned a few more things we hold onto today; we would need Safe Housing available at-the-ready, a Relocation Team that was available for immediate help, and a team of advocates to serve the victims as they walked through life and as we found them appropriate care. The vision of Freedom Railroad began to take shape… but there was still very little resource and so much to do!
Light does indeed shine in the darkness. One morning, Kristi and Amanda 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. Since then Real Life, New Horizon and other local churches, schools, and businesses have come on board to support The Freedom movement through The Jonah Project. The Jonah Project is now Educating students in school, Relocating victims to safety, Housing children in need, and Advocating for women across the city. 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 that Bindi helped heal from trafficking has started her own street ministry in Portland... The Jonah story is a story of Love winning...
Jonah has always been about Freedom. Today our task remains the same, to love people where they're at. But the context of that Love today is sending Light into some very dark places. Slavery is real. But others have taken their place at the table in Spokane to affect positive change for victims and survivors alike. The Jonah Project, as of 2018, has served more than 200 women and children, everywhere from Detroit to Charlotte to Rescue Operations across 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 agencies such as Homeland Security and the FBI, as well as schools, churches, and groups like the 611Network to fight for Freedom and be a voice for those who've had theirs taken away. There will always be work to do - until every last woman or child is brought home. Which means there will always be a place for you in Jonah or in partnership pursuing freedom for others!