Dawn Sakes is the executive director of More Too Life, a Sarasota-based nonprofit that provides resources, education, prevention tools and advocacy for victims of human trafficking. Born and raised in Texas, Sakes has lived in Sarasota-Manatee for seven years. We asked her about what her job entails, why More Too Life is so needed in our community and more.

What brought you to Sarasota?

“My in-laws live in Englewood, and I secured a job with an organization doing street outreach with unaccompanied homeless youth. There’s an intersection between homelessness and human trafficking, and when I was working with a client who was being exploited, I reached out to More Too Life and got connected with the organization and its founder, Dr. Brook Bellow. I loved what More Too Life was doing, and that ultimately led to a deeper relationship.”

What does your job entail?

“Managing our team; strategic planning; working with our founder, Dr. Bellow, to make sure policies and procedures are implemented; working with her to develop services; and fundraising.”

Tell us about More Too Life’s mission.

“Our mission is to inspire change in people and transform culture for a better world for all victims. We work to help people discover their purpose in life. When people are exploited, they often lose that sense of identity and purpose because of the trauma they’ve gone through.

“We do work in a group home setting, but we recognize that a lot of victims don’t want to go into that communal space, so we work to provide wraparound care for people in their home, where it’s safe. We also provide housing support, such as partial rent payments, to individuals.

“We focus on sustainability—we want to help victims finish going to school, get their GED, develop careers and have stable housing. We work with case managers and other community groups, like Legal Aid of Manasota, to provide that. We also work with traffickers who are court-ordered into a program that looks at why they’re engaging in these activities.

“One unique thing about us is that our founder, Dr. Bellow, is very involved in technology. She’s a Google NextGen policymaker; she’s a created case management software system; and she’s working on a virtual reality evaluation program that can be integrated into that case management system. We are looking at how we can make an impact globally, where anyone can access our services from anywhere.”

Do you find that people are surprised that there’s a need for services in a place like Sarasota-Manatee?

“I talk to people every day that are surprised that this is happening in our area—and happening to children, too. Our average [client] age in 2021 was just 15 ½. In Manatee County alone, we’ve received three or four referrals for 12-year-olds, and we’ve had kids as young as 9 in our program—not for prevention services, but for actual [trafficking] cases. Where there’s a lot of money, there’s a lot of exploitation.”

Tell us about the mentors you work with. Are they survivors of trafficking, too?

“Well, we’ve all survived something, but we do specifically have survivor mentors that have the lived experience of being exploited and who have been in recovery for many years. It takes a while to heal and recover from that trauma. Our original advocates work hand-in-hand with our survivor mentors to connect resources. And we’re all there to help the youth. There are moments when you see barriers start breaking down, when they learn that the survivor mentor has been through a similar experience—that they get it.”

What has your partnership with Legal Aid of Manasota, through its Legal Lifeline for Youth, been like?

“Historically, the court system has been punitive. I think having advocates there to educate [the courts] about trauma is so important. When we work with Legal Aid, that allows Legal Aid to better present information to the courts and provide its expertise to our clients. We’ve worked with youth who have committed some serious crimes. They could have spent decades in prison. But because we were able to go into the courts and talk about this behavior being a product of trauma, that has helped reduce sentences.

“It takes organizations like Legal Aid to help show the need for our services. We believe it’s so important to collectively step up to help victims who have experienced such significant trauma.”

What’s next for More Too Life?

“We want to continue to impact lives, gather support and increase awareness of our services. We want to see our virtual reality program come to full fruition, enhance our independent living services and continue to be able to provide support to our clients through sustainable activities in areas like equine therapy and gardening.”

Last question! When you’re not working, what are your favorite things to do?

“I thoroughly enjoy a girls’ night out. My friends and I love finding a great place to go out to dinner in the Sarasota area. I love gardening, boating, fishing and spending time with my dog and husband.”

If you want to learn more about More Too Life and its work, the organization will be hosting its second annual Healing Through Art event on March 30, 2023. This year’s event will include a wine tasting at Siesta Key Wine Bar with artist Marie Thérèse Lacroix. This year’s focus explores how art can impact the healing of staff who are exposed to secondary trauma as they provide services to children, youth and young adults who have been impacted by human exploitation.