Las Vegas Sun

September 24, 2023

How this philanthropy group is making a difference at St. Jude’s Ranch

Nevada Women’s Philanthropy awards $500,000 grant to help child sex-trafficking victims

Nevada Women's Philanthropy Donates to St. Jude's Ranch

Steve Marcus

St. Jude’s Ranch for Children CEO Christina Vela, left, looks over interior samples and renderings with Nevada Women’s Philanthropy members at her office at St. Jude’s Ranch in Boulder City, Thursday, May 4, 2023. From left: Christina Vela, Dawn Mack, Becky MacDonald, Safari Ross, and Sonnya DeBonis. Nevada Women’s Philanthropy will grant $500,000 to St. Jude’s Ranch to fund a 2,450 square-foot welcome center and emergency shelter for children victims of sex trafficking.

Christina Vela of St. Jude’s Ranch for Children in Boulder City glances over the renderings for a planned $25 million healing center for child sex-trafficking victims and starts detailing how the facility will look.

Nevada Women's Philanthropy Donates to St. Jude's Ranch

St. Jude's Ranch for Children CEO Christina Vela looks over interior samples and renderings at St. Jude's Ranch in Boulder City, Nev. Thursday, May 4, 2023. Nevada Women's Philanthropy will grant $500,000 to St. Jude's Ranch to fund a 2,450 square-foot welcome center and emergency shelter for children and youth who are victims of sex trafficking. The center and shelter are part of a 40-acre expansion. Launch slideshow »

She’s winded in her answer — almost glowing with joy over the services St. Jude’s Ranch will finally be able to provide when 10-acre center is operational in the fall of 2024.

“There’s no alternative for children (sex-trafficking victims),” said Vela, the CEO at St Jude’s Ranch. “If they aren’t getting the services they require, the outcome is the children will continue to be victimized.”

When the members of Nevada Women’s Philanthropy learned of St. Jude’s plans, they also saw a need in the community and took action. The group awarded St. Jude’s Ranch its annual grant, picking them from 36 other applicants for a $500,000 award.

The money is being used for a 2,450 square-foot welcome center and emergency shelter. It’s one of the highlights of the healing center project because that’s where St. Jude officials will be “welcoming people who experienced heinous forms of abuse and welcoming them to a place of compassion, a place of safety,” Vela said.

The welcome center will provide victims with immediate necessities — access to a case manager, a mental health assessment, food, shower and a place to sleep. More important: It will be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“This will be the only facility of this kind in the valley, and maybe the country,” said Dawn Mack, president of Nevada Women’s Philanthropy. “What really resonated with our group is that there’s nowhere to take these kinds of victims and they wind up back with their abusers.”

Nevada Women’s Philanthropy spends months evaluating each of the grant applications in a process that includes site visits and interviews. The hope is to gain an understanding of the need of the applicant and how the group’s grant can make a difference.

And at St. Jude’s Ranch, there was a significant opportunity, Mack said. They were inspired by St. Jude’s vision in providing children involved with human trafficking a place to heal while recovering from the trauma.

National Human Trafficking Hotline, which takes its data from phone calls, texts, online chats, emails, reports, ranks Nevada third nationally for child sex-trafficking victims at 5.8 for every 100,000 residents.

The group’s donation was added to donations from two separate contributors to completely pay for the $700,000 welcome center.

“It’s not giving a handout, it is giving a hand up,” Mack said.

Pooled resources

Each of the 126 members of Nevada Women’s Philanthropy gives $5,000 annually to be part of the organization. Those individual donations are then pooled to fund the group’s annual grant.

In addition to the grant to St. Jude’s Ranch, a smaller grant for $62,500 was awarded to Goodwill of Southern Nevada to support a program addressing the medical professional shortage in the valley.

The philanthropy group launched in 2006 and still has 80% of its initial members, all of whom are “passionate citizens wanting to make a difference,” Mack said.

“Our $5,000 can do something. You can make an impact somewhere,” she said. “I couldn’t fund a healing center for young adult victims of human trafficking by myself. But as a group we can.”

Last year, the Nevada Women’s Philanthropy grant funded a nonprofit providing dental care from a mobile van office in at-risk Las Vegas neighborhoods.

The group also previously awarded grant money to the domestic violence crisis nonprofit, SafeNest.

The funds supported a program where an advocate from SafeNest accompanies police on domestic violence calls to work with the abused and the abuser. The intervention became a model used in other cities, Mack said.

The philanthropy group’s grant program is so popular with local nonprofits that St. Jude’s Ranch for Children was thrilled to simply apply, Vela said. It wasn’t the first time St. Jude’s had gone through the application process; it also applied for a grant for the healing center in 2019.

“It was exciting to highlight the need to help victims of child sex trafficking,” Vela said. “It’s not an easy thing to talk about, but getting to present in front of that audience (the philanthropy group) is incredible in building awareness.”

Spreading the joy

Vela and her colleagues St. Jude’s Ranch were summoned last week by leadership of Nevada Women’s Philanthropy to a Zoom call. Knowing St. Jude’s Ranch and Goodwill were both finalists, they had been waiting for the definitive answer. The anticipation was high.

Finally, the news was delivered, cuing an emotional celebration by both donor and recipient.

“We got the laptop open and brought staff into the room,” Vela said. “It was so serendipitous. Tears of joy all the way around. The investment of $500,000 is transformational for us. It’s a huge gift.”

When the healing center is complete, it will have the capacity to accommodate 62 children. St. Jude’s Ranch served 598 nonduplicated clients during the last fiscal year on its 40-acre campus. Many of those clients were homeless youths or in foster care.

The organization is funded through donations, grant money and government funding. Make no doubt about it, Vela said, being pegged by the philanthropy group is significant. She understands there are many other Las Vegas-based nonprofits doing life-changing work and with similar financial constraints.

Mack also raved about the program at Goodwill, which partnered with NV Careers and Intermountain Health to create a 90-day accelerated medical assistant training program targeting diverse candidates in financially disadvantaged populations.

It was developed to help alleviate the health care worker shortage in Southern Nevada and support Intermountain Healthcare’s commitment to attract a diverse pool of candidates to launch a career in healthcare, Goodwill officials said. The program will provide Intermountain with 125 new medical assistants over two years.

“Goodwill of Southern Nevada is honored to have received this grant,” Karen Marben, chief mission services officer for Goodwill of Southern Nevada, said in a statement. “We are committed to using this investment to continue to transform workforce development and ensure strong efficacy and outcomes with our programs.”

The Goodwill program also caught the attention of the philanthropy group, because it provides training for in-demand careers to empower low-income participants to change their life trajectory.

“Every year it’s so hard (to pick the recipient) because the need is so great,” Mack said.