Tucked away in a small corner of Scotts Valley, two women are working hard to make a difference in the lives of sex trafficking victims. The Arukah Project is a faith-based nonprofit that works to restore, renew and rebuild survivors’ lives in Santa Cruz County.
Co-founders Heather Goode and Loreal Weitzel say the organization works with local churches, businesses, government agencies and community stakeholders to bring wholeness and freedom to those affected by sex trafficking.
Goode’s background is replete with business and ministry. As an ordained pastor, she has over 25 years of experience working in churches, specifically in the area of women’s ministry. In 2016, Goode shifted to her current role through prayer.
After speaking with church leaders, Goode connected with Weitzel, who has a bachelor’s in psychology from UCSC and first found her calling in 2015 on a mission trip with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Perth, Australia. There, she worked toward the prevention, release and care of those enslaved in sex trafficking.
Weitzel returned from Australia with a resolve to rescue, restore and reintegrate victims here in Santa Cruz. Along with having worked as an Early Intervention Behavioral Specialist and traveling on international missions and pastoral leadership, Weitzel is a Certified Human Trafficking Case Manager in California and is currently working on her master’s in Intercultural Studies with a focus on Children at Risk at Fuller Seminary.
The Arukah Project (Arukah is a Hebrew word meaning complete healing or restoration) was born in 2019, a year after Goode and Weitzel partnered with the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s office and started working with their first victims.
In May of 2022, the group became a licensed foster family agency, specifically focusing on commercially sexually exploited children. As a result, they can help families up to two hours away.
Goode says the team partners with outside organizations to provide support to victims, but their biggest focus for now is on prevention. They have created training and curriculum, including information geared towards parents and families. They also started a Title IV program for schools, and have worked with first responders
“The greatest tool we have in fighting trafficking is prevention, and prevention starts with awareness,” said Goode. “It’s not being discussed locally, and yet, we are a hot spot for human trafficking.”
Their work providing care after a victim is rescued is just as important, Weitzel said.
“It takes an entire community to surround a survivor with the support they need to get out of that life, stay out of that life, and finally get the life they’ve always wanted,” said Weitzel.
When asked how the group measures the success of their efforts, Goode said their metric is “survivor-led.”
“Our metric for success is: Does this person go from victim to survivor to thriver, and are they meeting the goals they set for themselves?” said Goode.
Members of Arukah Project work with their clients to determine what is needed by the victim in order for them to be successful in their escape, but recidivism is a big component of “the life” of a trafficked individual; most victims return to their trafficker 7-12 times before they are able to leave.
“That’s due to psychological trauma and fear. The life is what they know,” said Weitzel.
For now, Arukah Project has helped a few dozen victims escape the life; in the area of prevention, they’ve helped hundreds via online trainings and school events. The victims they traditionally assist are ages 18 and up, but Arukah Project has trained parents, kids and teens of all ages. In May, the group was licensed to work with Commercially Sexually Exploited Children and with independent minors aged 18-21.
One of their clients, in testimony shared with the Press Banner, said the Arukah Project team’s light “shone through all my tears and got me through some of my darkest times.”
“I wanted to be a whole healthy woman again, and I knew I was getting there. This was the journey I wanted,” the person wrote. “I also had the darkness looming over me of testifying in court against my trafficker. Arukah never missed a beat. I was thoroughly cared for before, during and after court. With frequent check-ins, having comfort items, holding my hands, being my ‘faces’ in the courtroom crowd, being my ‘guard-dogs’ and so much more.
“Through all this, there was still light.”
Arukah Project is starting to build its influence in the county, and they are always looking for connections, volunteers and donations. If you are interested in helping this team support those in need of escape from sex trafficking, or if you know of someone that needs assistance, visit arukahproject.org to help restore, renew and rebuild the life of a victim.