‘Taste of Freedom’ fundraiser this Friday
The LifeGuard Group, an organization that works to stop human trafficking, is building a safe house in the Bitterroot Valley. According to Lowell Hochhalter, Executive Director, the new facility will be called The LifeHouse at Crooked Tree Ranch. Hochhalter wasn’t interested in publicizing the location, in order to protect its confidentiality. However, he said it will eventually have space for 15 women.
“Our goal is to have 15 women there in the next 3-5 years,” said Hochhalter. He hopes to open it this fall and in the first year have four residents. “To be quite honest, we could fill the home right now. There is a real need for restoration locations for these women. It will be nice to have a hand in watching them on their journey to a normal life.”
According to the LifeGuard Group website, “With the knowledge that every hour 34 more individuals enter a life of sexual exploitation we are motivated to act. The human trafficking numbers continue to grow exponentially every year, with nearly 30 million estimated being exploited world-wide and two million within the United States… There were 465,676 missing child reports made to law enforcement in 2016. Some were runaways, some were taken and still others seemed to simply vanish. Research studies have shown that 75% of those kids that end up on the street are approached by a pimp and/or a trafficker in the first 48 hours. Law enforcement neither has the time nor the man power to conduct missing kid searches. But we do and we can!”
Hochhalter’s background is as a youth minister. He was a youth pastor for 15 years, then branched out on his own doing school assemblies. He is the father of four, with three daughters.
“About 11 years ago, we began to see a change in the attitudes and the things that kids were struggling with and dealing with,” said Hochhalter, “and we learned about the breadth and depth of trafficking and exploitation.”
Initially, Hochhalter and his wife Tami began working with an organization in Las Vegas, then four years ago they formed The LifeGuard Group to focus on the rural areas of Washington, Montana, Idaho, and North and South Dakota where very few resources are available.
The group works with victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. “We work with the rescue side, helping people escape that life. We just purchased this Bitterroot property to use as a safe home for ‘of age’ women to get therapy and find hope and job training. We also have an education and awareness piece. We travel all over the US presenting the program to students. We train law enforcement, health professionals, and the hospitality industry to recognize and respond to potential trafficking situations. How to recognize someone in a trafficking situation and get them the help they need.”
Hochhalter said that until last year, they were working with the National Human Trafficking Hotline that’s been in operation for about 10 years.
“It has its place,” says Hochhalter, “but we saw it as ineffective in the turnaround time for placements. There was a 2-3 day turnaround time after a call. In our opinion, that’s far too long. We were able to get a grant from the Gianforte Family Foundation to start the Montana Human Trafficking Hotline which we’ve been running since last November.”
The Montana Human Trafficking Hotline number is 1-888-406-STOP. They are also connected with seven task forces across Montana. “We’ve developed a resource database. We’ve built relationships with safe houses across the US that we trust. There are about 5-6 that we use. The predator, pimp or human trafficker will steal the victims’ identification, so they can’t fly commercially. Angel Flight West donates flights for the victims.”
The new safe house will focus on helping victims return to a “normal” life. Vocome – a Latin word that means ‘I’m with you, I hear you’ – is their advocacy program, in which women mentors can show these victims what “normal” looks like. “A lot of what they will receive is just normalcy, peace, rest…” said Hochhalter. “They slowly begin to learn that they can accomplish amazing things and they can do whatever they want to do. They all had a dream once to be something great and we can revive that for them.”
The LifeHouse at Crooked Tree Ranch will also use equine therapy, wilderness therapy, art and dance therapy, among others. Hochhalter said they can use volunteers in those areas as well as the mentoring program, for which training is provided. He also said there are some volunteer opportunities in renovation and improvements. People can sign up to volunteer to paint, build fences and corrals, decorating, etc. “We’re in need of all that right now,” he said. Anyone interested can go online to lifeguardgroup.org or on Facebook or call 396-5053. “We have work teams all the time, some specific projects. We also need people with specific skills like plumbing, flooring, electrical, etc.”
On Friday, June 11, they will hold the Taste of Freedom fundraiser at Montana Custom Log Homes, 2036 Highway 93 in Victor. Stephanie Quayle – country music singer from Bozeman who has been featured on the Grand Ole Opry stage nine times – will provide the music. Readers may be familiar with her popular song, “Drinking with Dolly.” Eight distilleries from across Montana will be featured, along with Tattoo Girl wine from Missoula, and Summit Beverage offerings. Murdoch’s is another big sponsor providing some items for the ranch. There will be a “reverse” silent auction in which people can bid to purchase items for the ranch. Grub Shack will be the caterer.
Tickets for Friday’s event are $75 VIP, $50 general. To buy tickets, contact Carson at 396-5053.
Hochhalter noted that in their promotional materials for the event, they have highlighted some of the people they’ve worked with. For example, Iris was a young girl from Missoula who was reported missing and LifeGuard helped find her. They are also involved in the case of Germaine Charlo who is still missing after three years. “We are working with sheriff’s offices, tribal police and others, still trying to find her,” said Hochhalter. He said they work alongside the tribal councils here in Montana and across the United States. “We join them in their fight against trafficking and in building resilience in young women and men to be a part of the rescue before the rescue is needed.”
Hochhalter said there are two main goals for the fundraiser. One, as a non-profit organization they always need to be raising money. But more importantly, he said, they want to introduce themselves to the Bitterroot Valley. “We want to let people know that there will be women coming here from all over to find their new life. We want people to feel they have a piece of that. In our opinion, there was no better place to set up the LifeHouse than the Bitterroot Valley. We’d just like to introduce ourselves.”