Art education is an element of the upcoming support program for trafficking victims at St. Mary of Egypt Refuge in Madoc, Ont. Photo courtesy St. Mary of Egypt Refuge

Retreat aims to empower trafficking survivors

  • February 9, 2024

St. Mary of Egypt Refuge is embarking on the third year of its commitment to provide comfort and support for survivors of sex trafficking.

On Feb. 20, the refuge will host Empowering Voices, a panel event to shed light on trafficking and celebrate the resilience of survivors.

From Feb. 22-24, this centre of respite and recovery will provide an all-expenses-paid, trauma-informed retreat for survivors.

Mary Marrocco, executive director of St. Mary of Egypt Refuge and a Catholic Register columnist, said hat attendees of the previous educational event and the two earlier retreats for women who experienced sex trafficking value the beauty and tranquillity of the refuge located near Madoc, Ont., in Hastings County.

“We have heard from everybody that this is a special place,” said Marrocco. “You can see the stars. You can hear the river. You can be a bit (more) removed from your distractions, which is scary too. But (what) we heard from the people who attended the retreats and previous educational event is there is something here. There is the welcome, beauty, quiet, supportive community and the opportunity for prayer.”

Simple ingredients at first glance. However, in a frenzy-paced, distraction-riddled world, an environment with such natural hospitality and peacefulness is uncommon. The serene backdrop at St. Mary of Egypt has empowered survivors to share details, in a non-judgmental space, about the trauma they thought would be buried inside forever. 

The Feb. 20 panel — both in-person and virtually — features three speakers and a facilitator who have all collaborated with the refuge over the course of its three-year project, which has received a subsidy from Women and Gender Equality (WAGE) Canada. 

Kendra MacKinnon, a partnership specialist with the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, will illuminate retreatants about the nature of this criminal scourge in Canada. Marrocco commends organizations “that actually work with people,” like Covenant House Toronto and the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, for being “such a fount of wisdom and understanding.”

Ashley Smith, a trafficking survivor who now serves and advocates for individuals who have been trafficked, will speak about the real needs of survivors.

Sr. Mary-Ellen Francoeur of the Sisters of Service will tap into her decades of experience as a clinical psychologist to provide an expert view about how to work with and accompany vulnerable people.

Jeanette Romkema, an art educator and senior partner with Global Learning Partners (GLP), is returning as the event’s facilitator. Marrocco said Romkema excels at helping those in attendance “be present to what is happening and think it through together.”

The retreat will feature a fusion of educational, therapeutic and pastoral activities designed to promote supportive relationships and nurture self-work. This retreat will look and operate very similar to the previous incarnations of this initiative at St. Mary of Egypt Refuge. The one key difference is that this three-day gathering will specifically serve young adults “in the neighbourhood of 20.” The previous iterations had no age prerequisite.

“The young people who have applied to come are very excited about things they (could do) like bonfires in the snow,” said Marrocco with a chuckle. “That age group will be very interesting for us.”

 Marrocco said these retreats would not be possible without vital contributions from her team and dedicated volunteers. Specifically, she commended Women’s Engagement Coordinator Angiza Nasiree. She has coordinated the project for sex-trafficking survivors each step of the way. 

The Catholic Women’s League (CWL) of Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Madoc, Ont., has also passionately supported the retreats. Members combed their contacts in Hastings County to offer haircare, hairstyling, pedicures and massage therapy to retreat participants. Others volunteer to offer whatever help they can on site during the event.

Marrocco said it is great to see when groups that are passionate about the anti-trafficking cause unite. She added that this must happen more often.

“Because trafficking is so omnipresent, if we are to respond and offer assistance, we have to be omnipresent too. It sounds so trite, but we really have to work together, or we are not going to get anywhere. You can do your individual thing, but you can’t work that way against something that is so harmful, destructive and well-connected around the world. We have to be well-connected or we have no chance.”

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