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Escaping long ago, CJ Curtis and her coffee shop help survivors of sex-trafficking

CJ Curtis talks about being a victim of the sex trade industry starting when she was 13. She now donates a portion of her income toward HRC Ministries, a nonprofit that helps sex-trafficking victims.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
CJ Curtis talks about being a victim of the sex trade industry starting when she was 13. She now donates a portion of her income toward HRC Ministries, a nonprofit that helps sex-trafficking victims. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

CJ Curtis is the creative force behind the Garden Coffee & Local Eats in Spokane Valley that opened in 2019. She designed the space to draw people together for coffee, healthy foods and a calm vibe.

Curtis also applies her skills – and 88 cents from the sales of certain items – toward the rescue work of HRC Ministries, a local nonprofit providing shelter, skills training, counseling and therapy to survivors who escaped sex-trafficking.

What people may not know is that Curtis long ago escaped herself. At 13, she ran away with an older man who forced her into prostitution, until she could escape several months later back to family in Spokane. After returning, she fell into hard drugs and jail, then recovery. She married, and she and her husband started going to church.

More than a decade passed before she came to understand she’d been a victim of a wide-based trafficking industry.

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

“It was 2016 or 2017 when I discovered HRC, and around that time that God just put it onto my heart to start sharing my story, but I didn’t understand,” Curtis said. “Then a friend of mine gave me this book, and I essentially started reading my story and learned about all the statistics surrounding sex-trafficking. It dawned on me that I was a victim myself.”

Statistics vary among different organizations regarding estimates on how many women and children are forced into sexual slavery each year in the U.S., with numbers that range from 15,000 a year to 325,000.

One 2009 study from the Department of Health and Human Services estimated between 240,000 and 325,000, while a report from 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 really healing for me. I believe it was God and his providence that led me to this concert, where HRC was sharing. It was like bright lights came on.”

For HRC, Curtis soon began helping and designed its boutique-style thrift store that opened in 2019. She said that experience gave her the confidence to open the Garden, and recently, a second venture: Bloom Coffee, a drive-thru on 57th Avenue. The South Hill site eventually will have some drink sale proceeds go to mental health and life recovery programs.

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

One day a week now, Curtis volunteers as HRC activities director and spends time with women at a learning center south of Spokane Valley. She selects activities such as painting, watching a movie or hiking. Curtis seeks to be honest with them.

“I’m very human; I’m not going to sugarcoat things,” she said. “I get to 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 that Curtis does inspire.

“She’s been through the same things they’ve gone through, so she gets it. They open up more to her. The biggest thing for them is to see hope and to realize their trauma isn’t the end of their story.”

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

“I was from a pretty dysfunctional family. When my parents divorced when I was like 11, I just rebelled a lot. I don’t think it was difficult for this trafficker to see those vulnerabilities in me.”

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

“I was still really naïve to that world, because had I known what I was getting into, there is no way I would have left with him when he did pick me up and I made the choice to run away with him. He essentially groomed me and promised me all these things that I didn’t have as a kid growing up, with money and drugs.

“When I left, he and this other gal that he was with proceeded to tell me what I’d be doing when we got down to California. I was a shy kid in a lot of ways, so I was freaking out, but I didn’t really say anything. He became really abusive really fast.”

Curtis said she was placed on the streets right away. She found a way to flee after being in California for part of a year, when the man returned to Seattle and had left her with relatives.

“My family thought I was dead; my mom nearly killed herself looking for me,” she said. “Coming back up into Spokane, I went through all that crazy trauma. I discovered hard drugs and fell really deep into that. I went through a rehab program and things were pretty good for a while.”

She graduated from high school but eventually returned to drugs, “back into that life,” and eventually jail.

“That’s when I started reading the Bible, and God just showed up and gave me a second chance. My mom had my son at that point, so I had something to live for. When I got out, I met my husband and really started on that track to try to better myself, get a real job. My husband and I got involved in church. I was by no means completely free from the things that happened to me.”

During that early drug treatment program, her mom got her into some counseling that included a rose garden therapy program, but she thinks earlier trauma counseling would have helped.

“It was like 2001, and people weren’t aware. My counselors didn’t know the right questions to ask; they didn’t even understand it themselves. I think now there’s more awareness. They’re learning to ask the right questions.

“I really have a heart to reach out to the young people, because I think if I would have 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 getting back into that life. That’s why I see the benefit of HRC and how there’s that six months, when the girls have time to heal, and get therapy and counseling.”

She and her husband raised her son, and with his two daughters, they have a blended family. Curtis rebranded the coffee shop, previously Cuppa Joe and then Cool Beans. She added foods such as avocado toast dishes and acai for healthy breakfasts and lunches, inspired by her choices to eat better. The garden theme ties into healing and childhood visits to her grandmother’s garden.

She said the coffee shop has given her the opportunity to meet more people and to help others.

“I’m finally starting to get to a place where I’m OK with my past and knowing that God is using it in 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 realize that’s not who I am anymore. God can use those broken pieces of our life.”

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