The Phoenix Alliance rescues young girls from sex trafficking operations, with funding from Danville and Martinsville.
DANVILLE – The Easter Bunny recently gained two special helpers – and a whole bunch of volunteers. When Ethan and Kimberly Wheeler moved to the South, they brought an idea with them.
The native Idahoans offered to hide Easter eggs in yards in their surrounding area, including bordering Virginia locations.
The proceeds from the sales went directly to their nonprofit organization, The Phoenix Alliance. The organization fights child sex trafficking through prevention, rescue, restorative care, education, job training and ongoing mentor support. It currently operates projects in Thailand, North Carolina and Indiana.
For as little as $25 – or as much as $125 – the Wheelers and their army of volunteers “egg” yards, just in time for Easter. No, they don’t throw raw eggs at houses – that’s vandalism. They do, however, fill Easter eggs with treats like candy and small toys and hide them in clients’ yards.
This year, the Wheelers plan to egg Virginia yards in Danville and Martinsville. They also plan to egg North Carolina yards in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Eden and Reidsville.
Getting Started in Danville
In 2019, the couple received orders for approximately 40 yards. Thanks to the orders and additional tips individuals gave, the nonprofit collected close to $2,400.
The following year, COVID-19 struck the area just weeks before Easter.
At first, the Wheelers wondered what the pandemic might mean for their fundraiser.
Much to their surprise, they tripled their orders, serving approximately 150 clients at around $5,500. However, the hunt went a little differently than the year before.
“We had the stay-at-home order [that] came into effect. So we weren’t able to go out and actually hide eggs,” Ethan said. “So we said, ‘If you complete your order, we can either, we call it the you-hide-it option, where [we] basically just drop a bag of eggs on your front doorstep and you can hide them yourself.’ Or, ‘You can wait until the order is lifted so that we can go hide them for you, but it could be a month.’ Or we didn’t know when COVID [restrictions might lift].”
Kimberly noted that most of the clients chose the you-hide-it option.
“And they were still super supportive. And that’s one of the things we love about this, is we have the greatest customers,” Kimberly said. “A lot of people have almost become like family over the years.”
This year, the couple set out to hide 20,000 eggs, according to a post on the nonprofit’s Facebook page. At the best rate – that’s $125 for 200 eggs – their fundraiser would garner $12,500.
With about a week and a half left until the eggs hit the ground, the Wheelers were well on their way to meeting their 2021 projection. At approximately 230 orders so far, people pledged about $10,000.
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The couple noted that the amount already raised met their fundraising needs for one of their larger projects – providing education.
The Phoenix Alliance’s girls’ home in Thailand currently houses 37 young ladies, which is more than usual. When COVID struck, the brothels many of the girls worked at closed down. While the Wheelers noted that was a positive occurrence, which brought many young girls to their doorstep, it also upped the need for funding.
In addition to providing food, shelter and safety, the girls’ home also offers educational opportunities. Many of the young ladies did not finish high school before financial concerns arose. In addition to putting the children in dangerous situations, leaving school early also limited their economic opportunities.
The Wheelers explained that in some cultures, the oldest daughter carries the financial load of the family. She earns money to repay her parents for bringing her and her siblings into the world.
“So the oldest daughter in particular is under a heavy cultural burden to go and earn money for the family. And the families kind of close their eyes and say, ‘Go into the city and earn a bunch of money and send it back,’” Ethan said. “They know exactly what she’s going to have to do. They know the pressure that they’re putting on her, but they pretend like it’s not happening. As long as they don’t say it out loud, they can pretend like it’s not real.”
In some circumstances, economic needs force the girls into prostitution.
Paving a Path
The Phoenix Alliance offers vocational training opportunities, resulting in self-sustaining, lucrative careers without compromising personal autonomy.
The 2021 Easter egg fundraiser so far already paid for all 37 young ladies’ tuition.
“A couple of days ago, I got to text our project manager over in Thailand and say, ‘Hey, guess what, Mary?’ You know, ‘All the kids can go to school. Like, we don’t have to worry about it. Don’t hold anybody back. Don’t say no.'” Ethan said. “We sold eggs and now the kids can go to school. So it’s kind of a surreal, like, kind of a crazy thing.”
Paving a path toward financial self-sufficiency created a life brimming with opportunities for the girls in The Phoenix Alliance’s care.
Part of the Phoenix Family
Even after a young lady leaves the home, The Phoenix Alliance still exists as a resource for her.
“Once you’re part of the Phoenix family, you’re always part of the Phoenix family. And just like any other family, we’re going to help you learn and grow and mature, develop skills, life skills and marketable skills, something you can use to earn a living,” Ethan said. “And then you’re going to go out and be independent, but you’re always going to have the family and we’re always going to be here for you and be part of your life.”
The resources the nonprofit offers don’t fit into a single mold.
“We don’t see that there is a way to just pop into somebody’s life, you know, wave a magic wand, give them some money or do something else and then send them out the door and say, ‘You’re fine now,’” Ethan said.
Kimberly readily agreed with her husband.
“That’s not the way it works at all because this is such a deep trauma that it really takes, you know, a while for these kids to be [on the other side of the trauma],” Kimberly said. “We’ve seen them on the other side. It’s really exciting, but you know, it does take quite a long time. And we want to be able to just be a continuing resource for them no matter what stage of life they’re in.”
Some of the girls who come into the home as teenagers return in their 20s as mentors.
“…They can go to them and say, ‘I’ve been where you are. I know what it’s like. I know what you’re facing,’” Kimberly said. “‘But look at me now. And look, things can be good. This is, you know, this is some hope that you can have.’”
Helping at Home
Additional monies raised through the Easter egg hunt will go toward a second project.
The Wheelers hope to eventually open up a home in Rockingham County, North Carolina, for teenagers aging out of the foster care system who are at risk for exploitation.
“That’s going to take a bit,” Ethan said. “We want to have a year’s worth of [an] operating budget before we open the home so that we can make commitments and keep those commitments.”
Currently, the couple visits a local juvenile detention center. There, the adolescents learn about things like harassment, coercion, neglect, abuse and trafficking.
“We can go in and basically teach the kids, ‘This is what it looks like for somebody to be targeted and taken advantage of and coerced into this life,’” Ethan said. “And when we teach that in the juvenile detention centers, you just watch one kid after another, the light go on and go, ‘Holy cow. That’s exactly my story.’”
Out of the 25 North Carolina girls the Wheelers met with, 24 experienced involvement in some way with human trafficking.
A Way to Help in Danville
The Easter egg fundraiser serves as a way to help both the Taiwanese girls and the girls closer to home.
“We love ideas like this, because… you can do an egg hunt for $25. It’s not a high bar to achieve,” Ethan said. “But you’re still participating at whatever level you can. And you’re doing something to make a dent in the impact.”
The couple encouraged those interested to involve themselves in whatever way they could.
“We always say, you know, if this is something that you’re heartbroken over, you feel called for whatever reason to get involved in, to do something about this, then you have two choices: you either do something or you help somebody else do something,” Ethan said.
The Easter egg hunt offers a local opportunity to make a global impact.
“This gives people a great way to help,” Kimberly said.
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at email@example.com