On the run a long time ago, CJ Curtis and his cafe help survivors of sex trafficking

CJ Curtis is the creative force behind Garden Coffee & Local Eats in the Spokane Valley which opened in 2019. She designed the space to bring people together over coffee, healthy food and a calm atmosphere.

Curtis also applies his skills — and 88 cents from the sale of some items — to the rescue work of HRC Ministries, a local nonprofit providing shelter, job training, counseling and therapy to survivors who have escaped the sex trafficking.

What people may not know is that Curtis escaped a long time ago. At 13, she ran away with an older man who forced her into prostitution, until she was able to escape several months later to reunite with her family in Spokane. After returning, she fell into hard drugs and prison, then recovered. She got married and she and her husband started going to church.

More than a decade passed before she realized she had been the victim of a massive trafficking industry.

“Before, it was something in my life that I had always stuffed, that I didn’t really talk about and that I was ashamed of,” Curtis, 37, said.

“It was 2016 or 2017 when I found out about HRC, and at that time God put it on my heart to start sharing my story, but I didn’t get it,” Curtis said. “Then a friend of mine gave me this book, and I basically started reading my story and learning all the statistics surrounding sex trafficking. I realized I was a victim myself. .

Statistics vary among different organizations regarding estimates of the number of women and children forced into sexual slavery each year in the United States, with numbers ranging from 15,000 per year to 325,000.

A 2009 study by the Department of Health and Human Services estimated between 240,000 and 325,000, while a report by the University of Pennsylvania put it at between 100,000 and 300,000.

“I realized that was the part of my story that I needed to open up about. It was truly healing for me. I believe it was God and His providence that brought me to this gig, where HRC shared. It was as if bright lights had come on.

For HRC, Curtis quickly began helping and designing her boutique-style thrift store which opened in 2019. She said that experience gave her the confidence to open the Garden, and recently, a second business: Bloom Coffee, a drive-thru on 57th Avenue. . The South Hill site will eventually donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of drinks to mental health and life recovery programs.

After speaking for the first time with HRC founder Caleb Altmeyer, she soon met her parents, Randy and Shelley Altmeyer. For the first time with them, Curtis fully shared what happened in his youth. Previously, Curtis said only her husband and a few friends knew “bits and pieces.” With the Altmeyers’ encouragement, she began to speak publicly about those early days.

One day a week now, Curtis volunteers as the HRC’s activities director and spends time with women at a learning center south of the Spokane Valley. She chooses activities like painting, watching a movie, or hiking. Curtis tries to be honest with them.

“I am very human; I’m not going to water things down,” she said. “I can go share, hang out with the ladies in the program, hopefully give them hope and inspire them that there is life on the other side.”

Altmeyer said Curtis inspires.

“She’s been through the same things as them, so she understands. They open up more to her. The most important thing for them is to see hope and realize that their trauma is not the end of their story.

Curtis grew up mostly in Spokane, but moved around a lot.

“I came from a pretty dysfunctional family. When my parents divorced when I was 11, I rebelled a lot. I don’t think it was hard for this trafficker to see these vulnerabilities in me. »

When she moved with her father to Seattle, Curtis said she was angry to leave Spokane. They were staying at the hotel when she met the older man.

“I was still really naive in this world because if I had known what I was getting into, there would be no way I left with him when he came to pick me up and I made the choice. to run away with him. He basically groomed me and promised me all these things that I didn’t have when I was a kid, along with money and drugs.

“When I left, he and this other girl he was with told me what I was going to do when we got to California. I was a shy kid in a lot of ways, so I was freaking out, but I really didn’t said nothing. He became very violent very quickly.

Curtis said she was immediately kicked out. She found a way to escape after spending part of a year in California, when the man returned to Seattle and left her with relatives.

“My family thought I was dead; my mother almost killed herself looking for me,” she said. “Coming back to Spokane, I went through all this crazy trauma. I found out about hard drugs and I really fell into it. I went through a rehab program and things were pretty good for a while.

She graduated from high school, but eventually went back to drugs, “back in this life” and ended up going to jail.

“That’s when I started reading the Bible, and God showed up and gave me a second chance. My mother had my son then, so I had a reason to live. When I got out, I met my husband and I really went down this road to try to improve myself, to find a real job. My husband and I got involved in the church. I was by no means completely free from the things that were happening to me.

During that first drug treatment program, her mother put her on counseling that included a rose garden therapy program, but she thinks counseling about past trauma would have helped.

“It was like 2001, and people didn’t know about it. My advisors didn’t know the right questions to ask; they didn’t even understand it themselves. I think now there is more awareness. They learn to ask the right questions.

“I’m really keen on reaching out to young people, because I think if I had had a program like HRC when I was younger, and they would have focused more on that specific trauma, I think I could have avoided coming back in this lifetime.That’s why I see the benefits of HRC and how there are those six months when the girls have time to heal and get therapy and counselling.

She and her husband raised her son, and with her two daughters, they have a blended family. Curtis renamed the cafe formerly Cuppa Joe and then Cool Beans. She added foods like avocado toast and acai for healthy breakfasts and lunches inspired by her better eating choices. The theme of the garden is related to healing and childhood visits to her grandmother’s garden.

She said the cafe gave her the opportunity to meet more people and help others.

“I’m finally starting to get to a place where I’m okay with my past and knowing that God is using it in a big way, to use my gifts and this platform to share and raise awareness. It was a really hard thing, but I’m learning to love myself and realizing that’s not who I am anymore. God can use these broken pieces of our life.