In 2007, 15-year-old Srey Da (name changed) was living on the Thailand-Cambodia border, poor and struggling to support her four siblings while her mother worked in Thailand.

One day while searching for her mother in Thailand, Da was lured into a car by a group of men who claimed to employ her mother. Several hours into the ride, Da realized she was not going to see her mother again.

After being gang-raped by the men—a common trafficking conditioning method—she was put to work in a Thailand go-go bar. By day she cleaned the bar; at night she entertained customers. Subjected to multiple rapes, Da lost track of time. She finally escaped when a policeman inspecting the bar pretended to hire her for sex. He drove her to the border and helped her get to the Cambodian police: the first leg of her journey out of human trafficking and back to a sense of self.

Key to Da’s recovery, and that of countless other girls ensnared in sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, was her referral to the Transitional Living Center (TLC). TLC is an aftercare program in Phnom Penh, Cambodia run by Transitions Global, a nonprofit organization with administrative offices based in Cincinnati. There Da engaged in therapy, adult life skills and a program to help her find her dream—which initially was, given her destroyed self-value, to clean toilets.

Founded by James and Athena Pond, Transitions Global provides comprehensive aftercare services to girls between the ages of 13 and 19 years old who have been sexually trafficked, exploited or abused. The Ponds guide, never push, and at TLC they allowed Da to do housecleaning training while she continued to work through her trauma. But before the Ponds began their work to transform the lives of sexually trafficked girls, they experienced a dramatic life change of their own. On Jan. 23, 2004, the Ponds and their three children watched “Children for Sale,” a story on NBC’s Dateline detailing sexual slavery in Cambodia. What happened next has all the makings of a dramatic feature film. 

Pond, a former U.S. Marine who had worked in intelligence, called the Office to Combat and Monitor Human Trafficking at the U.S. State Department. Learning that the problem was much more profound, he began research that would put him in touch with 14 agencies and prompt him to take leave from his job as an executive in a Los Angeles-based plastics company to travel to Phnom Penh to see firsthand what could be done. 

What he saw convinced him to return to Cambodia with his family. Together they began making a difference in the lives of girls victimized by the sex trade. 

“The Dateline piece was, quite simply, the moment that brought us here,” Pond says. 

Pond was no stranger to the struggles he saw on his TV screen that night and knew firsthand what deliverance could look like. Growing up in the Bay Area of California, his father was incarcerated when he was in high school. His mother struggled with alcoholism, Multiple Sclerosis and the challenges of raising three children. 

“It was only by the grace and compassion of a teacher...that took me in that I was able to graduate from high school and have some sense of education and family in my life,” Pond says. “His help wasn’t condescending. It was ‘Live with me for the next two years of high school.’ I was a vulnerable teenager, and having someone reach out in a very real way was totally life-changing.”

The Ponds married very young—James was 20; Athena, 17—and soon after being wed they took in Pond’s brother and sister, launching headlong into the action-oriented approach that has since defined their lives together. Five other teenagers followed— at-risk kids they encountered in what they call their own version of foster care. 

“It wasn’t like we just woke up one day and decided to move to Cambodia,” Pond recalls. “We had been working with vulnerable teenagers and participated in really serious homeless outreach. This wasn’t a soup kitchen. It wasn’t like homeless people come and you give them a meal. It was homeless people come in, they take a shower, they have a meal and then you start working on strategies for helping them get back on their feet.” 

The Ponds drew on this firsthand experience to put together an action plan for Cambodia. “When you’re dealing with victims, there are certain things that they need—safety, basic needs, therapy and life skills. We learned as we went along. We consulted professionals; we met with other organizations, learned the terminology and began picking up on the recurring themes.”

What the Ponds repeatedly heard was that the overarching need was for aftercare for sexually trafficked girls. 

“People envision these sex trafficking survivors as vulnerable girls that run into your arms, grateful and thankful that you’re there to save them,” Pond says. “Often times these are girls that are violent. They’re confused. They’re highly traumatized. They’re dealing with all kinds of stuff and they definitely do not see you as help, they see you as a hindrance. But they do come to see Transitions as a haven to heal.”

Transitions Global now operates two primary projects, TLC and Secondary Transitional Apartment Residence (STAR House), geared toward providing quality holistic aftercare for sexually trafficked girls. Victims are provided with everything from safe shelter to holistic medical care, restorative dentistry, therapy, life skills, education and vocational training. And when the graduates of primary aftercare can’t go home and can’t live independently, STAR helps them develop independent life skills through a social-work monitored program so they can learn to live on their own.

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Trafficking at home

Human trafficking is a problem of global proportions with epicenters in regions of the world compromised by war and poverty, but it’s also no stranger to cities like Cincinnati. 

“Sex trafficking is happening on two fronts and we find this to be a global trend,” James Pond says. “You have foreign women and girls that are being trafficked from Eastern Europe and Asia and Mexico into the United States. But you also have the American girls. What we find is predominately in every country the biggest problem is always domestic trafficking.” 

There’s an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 girls being trafficked annually in the U.S., Pond says. 

While Pond emphasizes every girl targeted by sex trafficking predators is different, a composite profile might look like the following: She’s grown up in a poor, uneducated rural family where she was sexually abused by a family member or someone she knew by the age of 7. She was probably raped by someone within her family or community by the time she’s 11 and then sexually trafficked somewhere between the ages of 13 and 15.

“The dilemma is the United States is an enormous country. We have one really great federal overarching law, but we have 50 states that interpret that law differently…We don’t have really solid services to provide them with the same care we are able to provide for girls in Cambodia.”

However, the Ponds are now finding trafficked girls that have ninth and tenth grade educations, as well as city-born girls that are being lured, tricked and kidnapped into the trade.