By Gina V. Ramsey
Every Friday night around 10 p.m., you might run across Mariah going out with a group of women hitting the streets of Long Beach.
Come rain or shine, 29-year-old Mariah Marple-Sewe and the group of volunteers from Gems Uncovered consistently dedicate themselves to reaching out to the young girls, boys, men,
and women in our city who have been lured into prostituting.
They are out there providing practical resources like hygiene products, food and water, contact information to locations that can help, and especially words of compassion and prayers. They are eager to ask these victims: “What do you need? What can we do for you?”
“Some of these girls just ask for things as simple as a prayer,” said Mariah.
“Can you pray for my mom; she doesn’t know where I am.”
“Can you pray for my kids, they got taken away from me.”
“Can you pray for protection for me, last night was rough.”
Mariah’s Story with Human Trafficking
Mariah knows these fears. She is a survivor of human trafficking.
When she was 16 years old, she had her first encounter with a human trafficker. Through a series of circumstances, by the age of 19, she had been successfully ‘groomed’ by her trafficker boyfriend, a type of psychological and physical abuse used by a trafficker to gain
emotional and physical control of a victim and exploit them for profit.
“I did not mention being trafficked to anyone because a trafficker puts it in your head that
this is your fault,” Mariah said. “So I just figured I was an unfortunate case and had to figure everything out on my own. No one tells you, ‘No, they shouldn’t have done that to you!’”
This shame and confusion are some of the reasons why victims of traffickers keep silent. The
mental abuse is so subtle, many women are not even aware that they are victims of a sex trafficker, as they are made to believe they are ‘business women.’
Gems Uncovered is Founded by Mary White
“I was embarrassed by the fact that I knew nothing about human trafficking and it was happening for years in my own community,” founder of Gems Uncovered, Mary E. White said.
White had learned about human trafficking in 2009 while attending a Women’s Conference where she heard educator and nurse Sandie Morgan speak on the subject. Morgan is globally recognized for her expertise in the fight against human trafficking and violence against women.
“After her presentation, I felt that still, small voice whisper, ‘Now that you know, what are you
going to do about it?’” White recalled. “My heart [cried] out for the young girls and women who are being crushed and I knew I had been called to speak up. [I] could no longer sit on the side lines.”
Gems Uncovered was established in July 2011 when White felt a calling to reach out to the women and young girls she didn’t even realize were being coerced into prostitution and sexual exploitation in her own city and surrounding areas.
Believing in the dignity of life and freedom, White was propelled to organize a street outreach,
which grew to become a nonprofit to help victims of human trafficking, to bring them hope for new beginnings, and uncover their ‘divine gem qualities within.’
“Community awareness about this horrific epidemic is crucial for us as a society to ensure our
children’s safety,” White said.
Per their site, the average age of human trafficking victims is between 12 to 17; many who are not able to leave ‘the life’ are injured or dead from attacks, abuse, diseases, or drugs within
less than a decade. Gems Uncovered focuses on ‘prevention and aftercare for all victims.’
“Gems Uncovered is not just another organization that wants to help and waits for opportunities like conferences and meetups to spread awareness,” Mariah said. “We meet these girls right where they are….in the midst of the fire and make contact with these ladies. Some nights it’s not easy, we have pimps and traffickers standing right there watching us, making sure we are not messing with their ‘product.’”
A Vulnerable Girl with an Unstable Home
The daughter of a drug-addict father and a mother who was recovering from substance abuse herself, as well as suffering with mental illness, Mariah was still a baby when her mother eventually left her abusive father, taking Mariah and her siblings.
“[My mother was now a single mom] and did her best and that’s all I could ask for,” said Mariah.
She and her family moved every few years and lived on government assistance until she
turned 18, which was also the year her world was crumbling around her.
“My mom was in a medical coma due to a doctor’s neglect during surgery,” Mariah recalled.
“So as she was in a coma, we were also receiving eviction notices, and living off hand-outs and food banks.”
All the while, Mariah was being lured further into sexual exploitation by her ‘boyfriend.’
Human traffickers prey on young and vulnerable individuals who may be experiencing an unstable home and financial environment, enticing them with gifts, promises to help, or even
drugs to momentarily escape dire situations.
For the almost 2 years she was trafficked, Mariah struggled with the guilt of finding herself in such a predicament.
“When I was first groomed and sold/trafficked across state lines, all I could think about is that I had to figure out how to get home all by myself because I put myself in this situation,” recalled Mariah. “As the victim, you often blame yourself, thinking ‘well maybe if you didn’t listen to this guy you wouldn’t be here,’ Or maybe ‘if you walked away from that abusive relationship you
wouldn’t be in the situation you are in now.’”
Because of the stigma and fear of judgment, many victims and survivors keep quiet and don’t
“What we don’t realize as humans, is that it is ok to make a mistake, but what is not ok is to be taken advantage of when you make that mistake,” Mariah said.
When Mariah was 21, friends introduced her to the man who would ultimately become her
husband. She resisted him at first, not fitting the ‘criteria’ of the type of man she was conditioned to seek.
“Eventually we started dating and he told me that I deserved a better life then working in a
strip club,” Mariah said. “I walked away and never returned. A year and a half later, we got married.”
Eventually, Mariah’s mom recovered and found her way to a local church where she met
Mary White and became involved with Gems Uncovered as part of the core team.
“If it wasn’t for Gems Uncovered, I don’t think I would have made it home,” Mariah said. “Not
until Gems Uncovered did I truly recognize what I had [gone] through and how many other
girls went or are going through the same thing. That’s when I began my healing process. Gems Uncovered gives a voice to the voiceless. I could remember sitting in class talking with some of the other girls, and some of our stories were so identical, it was crazy.”
When a victim leaves ‘the life,’ Gems Uncovered is there to assist them with recovery through
programs and resources for trauma care, awareness workshops, and even career development, GED preparation, and counseling at their Drop-In Center, the only one of its kind in Long Beach.
A Gem Helping to Uncover Other Gems
Mariah has been involved with Gems Uncovered since 2017. And after she also completed the proper training, she became a Board Member as Survivor Advocate and will soon be a Case Manager for Sex Trafficking Victims.
“Care and consistent love is something you look for and need after going through something so traumatic as [human] trafficking,” Mariah said. “Gems Uncovered help me understand that I am not alone, that my story is all too familiar, and it is important to stand up and be a voice for others who go through this, too.”
Mariah has dedicated part of her recovery to being one of those voices by doing public speaking tours in churches, panels, workshops, and radio and television shows. Due in part to the healing and encouraging work Mariah has done through Gems Uncovered, she recently launched her own business, Survivor Mentality, an online shop where each ‘purchase is done with a purpose.’ A portion of all proceeds aids Gems Uncovered in their efforts to continue to end ‘the darkness of human trafficking and sexual exploitation’ and help to ‘rebuild lives by
loving people to life.’
“Gems Uncovered was one of the main reasons I started my brand Survivor Mentality. They helped me go from victim to victor, with no shame,” Mariah said.
Not only has Mariah transformed from a victim to a victor, she is now the CEO of her own company and another determined soldier in the Gems Uncovered army aiming to rescue those who are ready to rebuild their lives; those who, like Mariah, have finally discovered
the gem inside.
Learn more at gemsuncovered.org.