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Walden Magazine // Jul 01, 2012

Beyond Borders: Becoming a Beacon of Hope

Psychologist Dr. Jennifer Leach ’10 trekked from rural Montana to Eastern Europe to advocate for victims of sex trafficking.

Jennifer Leach

It’s hidden in a neighborhood in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau: “Freedom House,” a stone house that is a source of hope for women and children rescued from sexual slavery. They come back to Moldova from all over Europe, rarely with the skills to lead a healthy life.

A meeting with a family who regularly travels to Moldova to build safe houses like this one convinced Dr. Jennifer Leach ’10 to join the project. “It was as though this mission was meant for me,” she explains. “Their desire to offer in-depth rehabilitation through counseling, job skills training, parenting, and education touched my heart.”

On her trip to Moldova in October 2007 as a PhD in Psychology student, Leach was shocked by the challenges the safe house’s staff faced. Their roles require a lot of patience—it’s not uncommon for them to be the recipient of a resident’s anger or to watch a woman leave the safe house only to be resold into slavery by the man she expected to marry. It was obvious to Leach that these women were suffering from serious emotional issues and that she was in the right place to make a positive impact.

On the ground, she was tasked with creating seminars for staff members who work with the women to set the staff’s expectations and goals through one-on-one counseling. “We wanted to develop the leadership by teaching them to manage and cope with the severe issues that would arise,” she says.

Jennifer Leach at a building site in Moldova.

Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe and, according to Time magazine, one of the “unhappiest” in the world. The combination of poverty and chronic unemployment makes it difficult for women to become self-sufficient by finding work and, as a result, they become targets for sex traffickers. Ideally, women at the safe house stay until they have found a home and a stable job and, most importantly, are recovering emotionally. “Unfortunately, the staff experience a lot of heartbreak,” Leach laments. “One woman who had been in the program for a year decided to run away.” She jumped into a taxi and vanished.

“In such an oppressive society, you work yourself to the bone to make ends meet. Many people there think the best a woman can do for herself is to get married,” Leach explains. “Men are the ones who can become police officers, lawyers, and doctors. Women don’t have those opportunities.”

Her trip to Moldova has had lasting effects. Back in Montana, Leach helps men and women alike recover from trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief, and personality disorders, through her private practice in Sun River. She also volunteers in Great Falls, where she counsels women who have had sexual trauma or need help setting boundaries.

Wherever she is, Leach is always applying what she learned at Walden to help people cope. “Earning my degree has had a big impact on my private practice,” she explains. “Walden reminded me that I can change someone else’s life for the better, whether it is in my own rural community or around the world. Every life has worth, purpose, and the right to freedom.”

Have you gone on an international trek to make a positive social change? Tell us the details by emailing [email protected].