Finding Healing and Empowerment After Human Trafficking

Salt + Light Coalition is a non-profit organization using yoga and wellness to help rebuild the lives of women and youth who have endured human trafficking.
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Dr. Izabel Olson, founder of Salt + Light Coalition.

Dr. Izabel Olson, founder of Salt + Light Coalition.

While in Chicago, Live Be Yoga ambassador, Lauren Cohen visited Salt + Light Coalition, a non-profit organization that aims to help heal, educate and empower youth and women in the fight against slavery. Lauren sat down with founder and CEO, Dr. Izabel Olson, to hear about her personal journey, what led her to start the organization and why yoga is such an important component of the year-long program offered to victims of sex trafficking.

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As I walked into the studio space, I was met by a group of women in black and yellow shirts. They were sitting around waiting to begin their weekly yoga class, a vital part of their year-long healing curriculum and job training program as participants of Salt + Light Coalition. Salt + Light is a non-profit organization that incorporates yoga, wellness and spirituality into its programming to carry out its mission to educate, heal and empower women and youth in the fight against slavery.

A Founder with a Mission to Help Those Living in Darkness

As someone who had a difficult upbringing and faced many challenges, Izabel Olson, founder and CEO of Salt + Light Coalition, turned to spirituality, health, and wellness as tools to help her heal from her traumas and build a life and career for herself. Her experience growing up with a father who was a political prisoner in Brazil lead Olson to reach out to a local Chicago jail to begin teaching healing yoga to female inmates. She soon realized that 70% of the women she encountered were incarcerated for charges related to having been trafficked. She saw firsthand the darkness that had overtaken these women as a result of being victimized by both men, and society. “60% of women who are trafficked are under the age of 18 and face trauma that is hard to get out of,” explained Olson. “They don’t finish their education, don’t have a job history and now have records. How are you supposed to, even if you’re ‘free,’ get a job? You just can’t.”

Moved by her experience in the jails, Olson started volunteering at shelters for trafficked women. She quickly identified a gap in the system, a gap that made it nearly impossible for women to step back into society, feel good about themselves, and be able to land and maintain a steady job. This is ultimately what led Olson to take matters into her own hands and create Salt + Light – to offer these women a comprehensive healing curriculum and job training program that could truly set them up for success, keep them out of jail, and to pave a new path. This program is designed to help victims start over from a place of self-knowledge, self-respect, and self-compassion and give them tools to regain a sense of identity.

See also How The Transformation Yoga Project is Helping Prisoners Find Peace

Yoga as a Cornerstone of the Healing Process

This is where yoga comes in. For Olson, the program wouldn’t exist without yoga. “Yoga is a tool that helped me to get to know myself and helped me heal, she said. “It allowed me to reflect on my own life and my own traumas and can even help us see traumas we aren’t aware we have. Yoga is introduced to the women from the very beginning. It gives them a sacred space to explore their bodies and to get to know themselves."

Chicago-based yoga teacher Alexia Bauer leads a class as part of the Salt + Light Coalition's program for survivors of human trafficking. 

Chicago-based yoga teacher Alexia Bauer leads a class as part of the Salt + Light Coalition's program for survivors of human trafficking. 

How the Program Works

As a non-profit, Salt + Light is run almost exclusively by volunteers and operates as a referral-based program, meaning staff work with various partners to help women find the organization. It provides a one-year job training program for survivors of trafficking, which is broken up into two six-month modules. Women begin their journey with Salt + Light after an extensive two-month interview process to ensure they are truly ready to put in the work to change their lives. They must be at least six months sober (if they are dealing with addictions of any kind) and must be working individually with a therapist.

The first six months of the curriculum is dedicated to the healing process, where tools such as yoga, spirituality, and cooking are woven together to help the women learn how to care for themselves in mind, body, and spirit and how to work through their trauma. “This healing process must happen before we dive into the job training part of the program. Because, if trauma is not addressed, it’s easier to fall back into negative patterns,” said Olson. She is proud to share that Salt + Light graduates have dropped 25% in depression scores (from before starting the program), 20% in anxiety scores, and none of them had gone back to jail.

As I watched this small group of courageous women do yoga and process with each other, I was able to witness the transformative power of community and conscious communication. I saw a spark in each of their eyes that made my own eyes well with tears – a spark of hope that perhaps there was a new beginning just around the corner, that they too could be of service and use their journey to help others heal.

A Success Story

Taylor Holm is one of the young women who recently graduated from Salt + Light’s program and teacher training. During our time together, I remember getting chills listening to her journey and healing process and her newfound love for yoga. She said that the most life-changing part of the program was learning yoga and beginning to teach as a way to give back. She is now teaching trauma-sensitive and recovery-based yoga at a local studio that one of Salt + Light’s volunteers owns. “Through yoga and through the program I’ve found ways to dispense grace on myself and people in my life,” she said. “I’ve learned that I can’t be afraid of everything and that not everybody is bad. There are good people in the world who are willing to help, and now I am willing to go after the things I want.”

See also The Healing Power of Trauma-Informed Yoga Classes

Because of the work Olson and volunteers are doing at Salt + Light, these women finally have an opportunity to start their lives again and to not be further victimized. They learn a different way of being in the world, with themselves and with others, and yoga is a vital component of this healing process.

When asked what her hope is for the organization, Olson smiled and humbly shared that her hope is to put herself out of business. She is working towards a world where there is no more modern-day slavery, a world where all women and kids know their value and understand their gifts, so they can share them with others.

To learn more about this incredible organization, visit saltandlightcoalition.com.

Live Be Yoga ambassadors Lauren Cohen and Brandon Spratt are on a road trip across the country to sit down with master teachers, host free local classes, and so much more—all to illuminate the conversations pulsing through the yoga community today.