Story by James Pearson
Elena Bondar downplays her big move. About six months ago she quit her comfortable job in San Diego and moved to Los Angeles, a city where she had never lived and knew almost no one, in order to chase her dream.
But she's not trying to act or sing. Elena is building a program to launch survivors of sex trafficking towards their dream careers. She calls the program Two Wings. Sex trafficking, she told us, is not confined to the infamous red light districts of Thailand and India. It's a frighteningly large and hidden criminal industry in America, too. And Los Angeles is one of its centers.
Elena was born in the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union. Her family was persecuted by the communist regime because of their religion and they dreamed of escaping to America. Finally, in 1988, they got the chance.
"We packed one suitcase per person to journey to an unknown land," she said. "I was five years old when we left our home and was not happy to leave the only life I knew."
She grew up in northern California, immersed simultaneously in mainstream American culture and a robust Russian subculture. In college she studied Social Work, dreaming of working with youth in Russia, perhaps starting a transitional living home. But after an emotionally draining stint as a social worker in Riverside County she decided to go back to school.
Several years ago Elena was living in San Diego, studying for a double Masters in Business and Education and working at an online university, when she saw the film 'Trade' about international sex trafficking.
"I was shocked to learn that something so atrocious was occurring to young girls my age not only in other countries but in my own city," said Elena. She found an organization that ran San Diego's only dedicated shelter and comprehensive recovery program for trafficking survivors and, learning of their funding needs, voluntarily organized one of their major fundraising events.
This experience kindled an old spark in her.
"Working in the corporate world for five years was beginning to take a toll on my humanitarian spirit," Elena said. "As I began to volunteer with the organization I realized the part of me that wanted to open a transitional program had been awakened."
Then, she says, she was faced with a choice. "Do I continue to work in a job I no longer find fulfillment in, or do I pursue something that has been in my heart for many years?"
It's a wonder that a successful young woman would consider leaving a comfortable job and good friends to pursue something so challenging and uncertain. Maybe seeing her family cross oceans for their beliefs left her uniquely open to such a sacrifice. Maybe seeing a thriving Russian subculture that exists all but invisibly across America prepared her to understand, as few others could, an invisible tragedy taking place in our cities.
"I felt a moral obligation to pursue my dream," she says. So she went for it. Los Angeles is home to more sex trafficking survivors than almost anywhere else in America, so that's where she went, without a job and knowing only a couple people. Luckily her brother lived in LA and offered her a place to crash.
Now she works to build an organization that will support survivors of the sex trade in choosing and pursuing dream careers. "My dream for Two Wings is to see not only our survivors inspired and empowered to pursue their dream careers," Elena said, "but to see other women inspired to pursue their dreams, too."
She is building a program that can be replicated across the United States, and that she hopes will one day reach women as far as Ghana, in West Africa.
We asked her what sort of difference she would like to make in the world. "To inspire people to pursue dreams that enhance our world. Regardless of how big or small, to pursue them relentlessly. Just jump," says Elena. "It will be worth it in the end."