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Building Courage: Facility helps child sex trafficking victims reclaim lives

December 05, 2016

Each year, 100,000 children in the United States are entered into sex trafficking.

Subjected to extreme abuse, many develop behavioral and emotional problems, understandably angry and inclined to lash out physically at those around them. Returning to their families often is not an option because it is commonly a family member who enslaved them in the first place. Even when the home is deemed safe by the authorities, the parents often do not want them returned. The only other “protective” custody available for these girls is juvenile detention centers. 

Courage Worldwide (CWW) aims to change that with the development of Courage House, a campus in Northern California that offers sex trafficking victims ranging in age from 11 through 17 an environment that fosters feelings of safety and comfort—feelings that other adolescents can take for granted.

Laying the foundation

Designing the Courage House, Northern California campus to support the CWW mission was the primary objective of the team at Stafford King Wiese Architects. Together, CWW and the architecture firm sought to develop a new definition of home that would support the programs while fostering healing and encouraging hope.

Stafford King Wiese Architects approached the design with the aim to achieve this behavioral healthcare client’s inspiring vision while remaining grounded in evidence-based design principles. Courage House combines multi-style building types of residential, healthcare (therapy/counseling), education (classroom/PE, art/music) and spiritual (chapel). It is also a unique building type because it is envisioned to be a permanent home. This further emphasizes project team leaders’ focus on defining the architecture as an active participant in the healing process.

The Courage House project is an application of evidence-based design (EBD), a process that utilizes credible research, scientific fact and human physiology as a basis for design decisions. The use of EBD first transformed healthcare design because it helped reduce medical errors and increased staff efficiency. It has since been expanded to facilitate healing and improve patient outcomes. The process has improved student outcomes and worker productivity as well. Decisions that were formerly based on assumption can now show measurable results, specifically positive outcomes for patients and other building inhabitants.

At Courage House, unique needs cry out for a unique approach. To counteract the lack of freedom that typified their lives in slavery, the Courage House program provides girls with a variety of activity choices. Architects also know that exposure to daylight and to the natural landscape helps patients feel better physically.

Defining “home”: An architecture of choice

While designing the first cottage, the design team’s challenge was to define the elements of “home” as they relate to the girls’ unique experiences. Girls who may have once been prisoners in their own home are now given choices in shaping and defining their home. Each cottage is designed for six girls, so the program mixes those who have been in recovery for different lengths of time. The architecture allows them the choice to fully engage in a social space, or to occupy the edge, depending on their level of comfort. To make this possible, the design included configurable spaces with moveable partitions and furniture to support various group sizes and activities. Areas to display personal items and gardens for girls to develop each offer many opportunities for self-expression. The key is to provide choice within a structured environment so that it does not become overwhelming.

Cultivating hope: The place

Courage House NorCal was conceived to help residents confront their fears and overcome them. To attain such a goal, the architecture needed to convey hope, optimism, recovery and community emotional support.

The Campus: The campus ultimately will contain 10 cottages, Chapel, Activities/Education Building, administrative spaces located within the existing house, and a Founder’s Cottage. The main circulation path provides a strong organizing element through the campus, as it radiates from the base of the cross on the Chapel wall, to link all 10 cottages to the Activities Building at the other end. The circular plan creates a more enclosed space within a very wide open site. The inwardly focused arrangement of buildings provides every cottage with a direct line of sight to the Chapel, which is lit like a lantern at night. The site plan is intended to support a feeling of security, and assign a strong symbolic importance to the Chapel in the center.

The Chapel: Jenny Williamson, CEO of Courage Worldwide, founded the organization on Christian beliefs and has made it her life’s work to help these girls recover their lives. The entire organization is rooted in faith and spirituality, the architecture is no exception. The Courage House facility participates in medical research that studies the link between spirituality and emotional healing in recovery patients, under the direction of Benjamin Keys, founder of the H.E.A.R.T. model of treatment for trauma victims.

“Having the Chapel and the element of spirituality be the primary focus of the project is powerful,” says Keyes. “It is essential to the healing process. In addition, the organization of the cottages supports the feeling of safety.”

The translucent exterior skin of the Chapel takes the shape of a silo, reflecting both the agricultural character of the location and the importance of the Chapel as the physical and emotional center of the campus. Just inside the exterior screen wall, a garden surrounds the all-glass chapel, which is illuminated at night. The girls often awake from nightmares. The glowing Chapel and cross offer a beacon of comfort.

The Wall of Courage: The Wall of Courage runs alongside the main circulation path, serving as a constant daily reminder of hope and courage. The low stone wall is designed with many small openings along the entire length of the wall. The openings are provided for each girl to fill with a permanent “stone” of her own. The vision is that the holes will be filled over time with a meaningful message of hope or an art piece developed in the art therapy program.

“The Wall of Courage allows for closure,” Keyes says. “It gives them a place to let go and say, ‘I’m leaving my old life behind.’ ”

Caren Cupp is a project manager and senior designer for Stafford King Wiese Architects.

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