BILLINGS — The weather was perfect for a run in Billings over the course of Saturday, with people turning out to two races that benefited local nonprofits: HER Campaign and Court Appointed Special Advocates of Yellowstone County.
In the morning, people gathered for the sixth Run for HER, to benefit the local group that seeks to help survivors of human trafficking gain back their independence. Runners trekked either five or ten kilometers around Norm's Island or virtually.
The HER Campaign was started in 2016 by Britney Higgs and her family.
“It started as my family running a safe home and we would just walk the journey of healing with these women that were coming out of human trafficking," Higgs said.
In the first three years, the nonprofit's staff were able to help 10 human trafficking survivors. In 2017, the group opened a safe house, with help and mentorship from a similar organization in Atlanta, Georgia, called Well Spring Living.
Of the estimated tens of thousands of human trafficking victims, Higgs said there's only about 250 shelter programs across the country that cater specifically to those victims. HER Campaign is one of the only services of its kind in the state, Higgs said.
"There’s a huge gap. Here in Montana, we are one of the only programs that are currently specializing in helping human trafficking survivors and providing those residential services. We see that as a problem. We want to make sure that when these women are being brave and they are stepping out of human trafficking, that they have a safe place to go and to heal and to have those resources to really help them get into economic independence," Higgs said.
HER Campaign has expanded further this year, opening up a transitional home, called the Marley House, for women and their children to stay for up to two years.
“They still have accountability. They still have people surrounding them. Still have people empowering them to step into a career that they are passionate about. Have that job skills training. Have some additional counseling and then hopefully step into economic independence after they leave the home," Higgs said.
Proceeds from the Run for HER and the accompanying fundraiser will go to help the group's residential programs. In particular, to finish up the Marley House to provide accommodations for up to seven women and their children.
Higgs said the thing HER Project was able to offer one person was a sense of family that they'd never had before.
"Stepping into a home and getting to be loved on and seeing how a family operates has been the most impactful thing for her. She tells me every day that it gives her so much hope for her future and that she is going to break the chains of what she went through and she is going to do it differently and she is going to have a family of her own someday. And she now knows what to look for and what to hope for," Higgs said.
To get help for more survivors, HER Campaign staff have started up a new program that enlists the help of local families to support human-trafficking survivors, called Family Alliance. The year-long training group is already filled up for this session, but Higgs said another session will be coming up soon if people want to help.
“We equip them to be trauma-informed. To understand what it is to bring a survivor into your home and provide those resources for them. And then after that, we do home visits. We work with them on security. We get them ready to take in a survivor and then providing those wrap-around resources to really see them heal and grow and step into independence," Higgs said.
To learn more about HER Campaign visit the group's website by clicking here.
Across town at Last Chance Pub and Cider Mill, people gathered for a more leisurely race: the Fourth Annual CASA 0.5K Run. The event is the main fundraiser for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Yellowstone County.
Before the start, people got a voucher for one drink at Last Chance. About halfway through the run that stretches about the length of a Billings city block, participants could catch their breath and snack on a doughnut.
The race is back this year in person after being held virtually in 2020.
Volunteers with CASA primarily speak on behalf of foster children in court but are also a friend to those kids who are in difficult situations.
“You’re working with children who have been through very difficult circumstances. Sometimes those kids are carrying a lot of trauma, but of course, it is the most needed. These kids are probably the most vulnerable parts of our community," said Emily Gaudreau, development director for CASA of Yellowstone County.
Gaudreau said there are about 800 kids in the overwhelmed foster care system in Yellowstone County. CASA has the ability now to advocate for only 265 kids. The group is always looking for people to become advocates.
“They often are just kind of getting moved around so much. People don’t always have the consistency that they need. They don’t have that one person who knows them well, who is going to be with them throughout this time of change and turmoil. I think if we really want to change the world, we need to start with our own communities. And if we can change the life of one child for the better, we can change our whole community," Gaudreau said.
CASA volunteers must be 21 or older. It's a five to 15 hour-per-week commitment to serve kids up to 18. Gaudreau said staff pair people up with an age range of children that works for them.
To learn more about CASA of Yellowstone County, visit its website by clicking here.