Stepping Stones Network
Stepping Stones Network is a nonprofit whose mission is to educate and engage the community to prevent domestic commercial sexual exploitation and to provide comprehensive, restorative care to survivors.
Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce: Tell us about Stepping Stones Network and your involvement in the organization.
Colette Mendelson: About 4 years ago I saw a posting in the Christ Church bulletin about Stepping Stones Network and their mission and they were hosting an informational/education session and I decided to attend. The issue just compelled me to want to help and I told the volunteers that evening I would run an art fundraiser for the organization, and I have been a volunteer ever since. The numbers are staggering, it is estimated that between 16,000-25,000 people are sexually exploited in the Chicagoland area. The stories of how many girls/women are taken advantage of by manipulation just sicken me and I wanted to do something about it. I can empathize with the girls/women--if I had trusted the wrong person at some point in my life, could this have happened to me? The thought is terrifying.
LFLBC: What is your vision for Stepping Stones Network?
Colette Mendelson - This is an exciting time for Stepping Stones Network, we have been an entirely volunteer organization, and this past month we just hired our first staff members and will open our first home to help mothers who have been sex trafficked and their pre-pubescent children. Our vision is to have several homes. Our first, opening July 8, 2019, will be a 12-18 month program that will bring healing and help the family rebuild their lives. Our hope is then to duplicate this home to serve more clients and to open a second program that will be a short term 30-90 days for someone to test out a program as some women cannot commit initially to a long-term program. Our program will be holistic and help both the mother and the children. We believe we will be the first in the country with this kind of program. Other structured programs are designed to assist single women and are not equipped to take women with their children – so the women either have to give up their children for at least a year, or forego the help. Most women don’t want to give up their children so this becomes a barrier to them getting help.
LFLBC: What is the one thing you want people to know about Stepping Stones Network:
Colette Mendelson: Sex Trafficking is not just [women] being taken off the street and kidnapped and forced into prostitution. It is more sinister than that--it is often by fraud or coercion. The numbers for victims of sex trafficking keep rising with the demand, and that demand is due to pornography. Pornography is the most downloaded thing on the Internet. Many people are becoming addicted, and that can bring them to 'purchasing' a person. This is modern day slavery. We offer programs for men who are struggling with porn and sex addiction that is run by a man who came from that background. We offer another program for men and/or women who have suffered some sort of trauma in their lives. They are called our Conquer Groups (Men) and Journey Groups (Women & Men). Stepping Stones Network wants to stop the demand, educate and prevent and restore lives.
LFLBC: What other local organizations do you work with?
In my role as Director of Development for Stepping Stones Network, I have worked with Forest & Found where we are lucky enough to be one of its charity recipient organizations. We are one of the beneficiaries of a fundraiser that The Mustard Seed held earlier this month. We also have partnerships with A Safe Place and Safe Families. Beauty Brains and Brawn has had me speak at one of their events too. Many local businesses have supported us also when we have run a fundraiser like Kenzy Gifts and Décor, J McLaughlin, Sara Campbell, Flowers by Katie Ford, Deer Path Inn and J Crew.
LFLBC: How do you give back to the community?
Colette Mendelson: We are constantly creating partnerships with the local community. We have worked with local law enforcement to help place a few women who have been trafficked and we offer sex trafficking education meetings every third Monday night at Christ Church that anyone from the community can attend. We have partnered with many local nonprofits and businesses to help keep our community a safe and wonderful place to live.