In a hotspot for human trafficking, this organization is fighting back

In a cookie-cutter neighborhood in the heart of South Miami-Dade County,  a simple house has become a hub of healing for victims of human trafficking.

The house is home to Project GOLD, an offshoot of Kristi House, an umbrella to a variety of programs to assist young women who were and are victims of human trafficking.

“In a world where all you have to do is push a button to make it difficult to see who’s safe and unsafe, it’s no longer a message of stranger danger,” says Ricardo Rubiales, director of Project GOLD, which started in 2007.

Each year, Project GOLD dedicates the month of January to highlight its mission and get others to join the fight. The idea is to spotlight the admirable initiatives of Kristi House and Project Gold in response to the growing danger and incidence of human trafficking in Florida. 

The letters in Project GOLD stand for Girls Owning their Lives and Dreams.

The problem in Florida is clear. In 2023, the Florida Department of Children and Families reviewed that the Florida Hotline of Abuse received over 1,267 calls of child human trafficking allegations in the state.

Rubiales said that in this constantly changing, tech-savvy world, it’s becoming more and more difficult to determine who is safe and who is actually in danger. The hotline calls represent only a portion of the cases of human trafficking, maltreatment, and crimes against children and adults.

Unlike other programs, Project GOLD focuses on all aspects of the girls’ lives. Its home base looks like a typical suburban house. Girls in the program are dropped off there in 12-seat unmarked vans to spend their day full of group work, activities, coaching, tutoring, and more. 

The GOLD program doesn’t ask them to tell their stories because privacy is crucial in the program. Identities of members and their locations are always protected. Many of the young women may still be near dangerous environments, still trying to unlearn dangerous behaviors and habits, still trying to build trust and reenter the community, Rubiales said.

This drop-in location opened in 2012 and has been a full house since. Over 1,000 young girls and trans-identifying girls from all over Florida have been through the program, most from Miami. 

Running a home and making it a safe space requires working with a variety of organizations. 

“We don’t exist without our partners,” Rubiales said.

Partners include the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, Miami-Dade Police, and Citrus Health Network, among others. The partner organizations give Project GOLD the push they need to get their message through to victims, bystanders, and the community as a whole, Rubiales said. 

GOLD is funded through private and federal organizations. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant, a Victims of Crime grant, as well as the Miami Foundation, the Children’s Trust, and many more supporting foundations. 

When the girls arrive at the location, they are greeted by staff, mainly the mentees and coaches of the day, and are given their first snack. Activities for the day can include therapy, tutoring, financial coaching, and employment coaching. Project GOLD also provides meals brought by partners.

Participants are offered legal aid, medical aid, financial aid, and more. They may begin specialized career coaching and financial literacy training as it aligns with their advancements and age in the program.

“It’s not just fire drills; it’s meetings and drills on meeting the wrong people online and in person and having those dangers on school grounds,” said Brianna Munne, a Miami Dade Public Schools teacher who works with the program.

Girls take part in an activity called The Motivational Edge, which incorporates music and art. Image courtesy of Project GOLD.

For many of the young girls, just joining Project GOLD is a huge step as they try to learn prosocial behaviors and ways to cope with their traumatic experiences. This is not just an organization that works as a safety net but a program that is part of a network of partner agencies that work together in combatting human trafficking.

There are small incentives to motivate the girls. If they attend a group meeting, they might earn $5. With a sense of independence and accomplishment, Rubiales said, their walls begin to come down. 

To bring more attention to the dangers affecting young girls, January is designated as Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Image courtesy of Project GOLD.

Project GOLD wrapped January with the program’s fourth annual Anti-Human Trafficking symposium, in which the community heard from professionals as well as first-hand experiences. It even included a guided at-home chair yoga session. 

To learn more about Project GOLD and Kristi House, visit the website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a wrong first name for Ricardo Rubiales, director of Project GOLD

Gabriela Salinas is a bilingual student journalist at Florida International University pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Digital Journalism on a pre-law track. She has gained experience in the legal and communications field through internships at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce.