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Pathfinder Center opens doors to human trafficking victims

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Lisa Heth, executive director for Wiconi Wawokiya, Inc., shows one of the rooms inside The Pathfinder Center, which will serve as a long-term housing shelter for victims of human trafficking. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 3
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CENTRAL SOUTH DAKOTA — In the least likely of places, Lisa Heth found the place where she could finally provide refuge for human trafficking survivors.

What was formerly a run-down motel, is now a brightly decorated, long-term shelter for women and children — and the first of its kind in South Dakota.

The Pathfinder Center, which formally opened its doors early last week, has 13 bedrooms uniquely decorated by a variety of organizations and individuals who provided sponsorship.

One bedroom has a queen-sized canopy bed covered in a delicate, white-ruffled comforter, while another is brightly painted pink and yellow with affirmations written on the wall. And another bedroom, Heth designed herself, has hand-painted blue feathers outlining the ceiling.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” said Heth, executive director of the Pathfinder Center. “Every room is different, specifically for each woman’s various needs. What works for one may not work for everyone.”

The center is located in central South Dakota, but the specific city and location are being withheld from the public for the safety of the women.

Heth, who is executive director of Wiconi Wawokiya, has been working with trafficking and domestic violence victims for the past 25 years. Wiconi Wawokiya is a nonprofit victim services organization located on the Crow Creek Reservation in central South Dakota.

She first got the idea to open the center in 2015. A seemingly random phone call from a motel owner led Heth to the bank to ask for a loan to turn the motel into a shelter. Almost two years later, Heth is ready to open the shelter for services.

“These women should come into these rooms and feel the love that went into decorating them. To know that someone out there cares about them,” Heth said.

In addition to providing long-term residence, the center will also provide group activities, GED classes and provide a dedicated room for law enforcement interviews if the victims choose to report the trafficking.

The women, who are accepted into the center, must make a commitment to stay for a minimum of six months with the ideal stay being 12 to 18 months. When the women are ready to graduate from the center, there will be a resource book provided, offering information on churches or organizations that can assist victims with transitioning back to normal life outside.

“We are trying to ensure these women can be successful outside the center,” Heth said.

South Dakota has more than 30 sexual assault/domestic violence shelters but each site typically offers 30-day stays. And Heth intends to work with these centers to provide a list of referrals for possible acceptance into the center.

Heth also will be at the 2017 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, typically a place where human trafficking occurs, to refer and welcome the first two women into the center — which could be as early as next week.

Heth wants to expand the center slowly, starting first with two women before the shelter is ready to accept more.

Straightening out a few pillows on a bed Tuesday afternoon, Heth said she is excited to welcome the center's first two women, and looks forward to impacting more lives down the road.

“This should be where these women can find their place in life,” she said.