"You see what’s happening in our communities every day," FBI Director Christopher Wray told the honorees. "And you’re taking action to make things better"

By Adam Carlson
May 04, 2019 11:15 AM
The 2019 recipients of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Awards, with FBI Director Christopher Wray (center, front)

Gwen Adams sees a lot of the world’s darkness — and hears a lot of its darkest stories — and there is one story, if you ask, that she will always tell you.

The founder and executive director of Priceless Alaska, Adams has spent years combatting human trafficking: helping survivors heal, helping them adjust to lives of freedom and helping them bring their traffickers to justice.

But the success of her work, by its nature, is shadowed by tragedy.

Adams remembers one girl she was helping prepare for trial. “She was sold into a life of tracking by her husband who beat her up,” Adams says. At one point she became pregnant, but she was not free: Her trafficker kicked and kicked her until she delivered the months-old fetus, a boy, on the bathroom floor. His body was concealed in a landfill not far from Adams’ home.

The girl eventually got free but found she did not have the strength to face her abuser in court.

“She told me, ‘I wish I would have, but would you mind telling my story?’ ” Adams recalls.

The girl worked with Priceless Alaska, Adams’ group, which provides a mentor team for each trafficking survivor. Together with her mentors, the girl was able to name her son: Bryan.

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“She said, ‘I just don’t want my little boy to never have been known,’ ” Adams says. “… In order for his life and her life to have purpose, she just wants me to tell her story.”

For her work and the work of her staff, Priceless Alaska was among the dozens of local groups around the country who were awarded the FBI’s annual Director’s Community Leadership Award.

The ceremony, held Friday at the bureau’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., honored a range of groups.

Among them were Adams’ Priceless Alaska, fighting sex trafficking; Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation, for its support of survivors of the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, wildfires in 2016; Sandy Hook Promise, started by the relatives of victims in the Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting; and the Mescalero Apache Tribe Violence Against Women Program, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, helping native women out of abusive environments.

Other honorees included Boston activist Deeqo Jibril, “whose mission is to integrate the Somali community into American life while maintaining its culture, faith, and values,” according to the FBI; Dallas Pastor Harry Lee Sewell, who is significantly involved in local community development and works with a men’s shelter; and Soha Saiyed, of Louisville, Kentucky, who focuses on anti-human trafficking and civil rights efforts.

“Your mission is a commitment to serving your communities. You’re showing people kindness when they need it most. You’re defending those who need a voice,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told attendees at the Friday ceremony. “You’re making sure no one gets left behind. You’re helping keep your neighborhoods safe. And you’re putting in the work.”

“We need the support, understanding, and trust of the public,” Wray said. “And you are our bridges to them. You’re out in our neighborhoods. You see what’s happening in our communities every day. And you’re taking action to make things better.”

For Lola M. Ahidley, director of the Mescalero Apache Tribe’s domestic violence program, the FBI recognition was just the boost her small group needed.

“There are times that we’re so tired at the end of the day, and we have done so much, and we’re just exited to know that someone was actually watching what we were doing,” she tells PEOPLE.

Ahidley’s program in New Mexico is based in a small, native community, where it focuses on outreach, awareness and providing support to abuse survivors. Ahidley says she hears from grateful women whom she and her colleagues have helped: “We have survivors texting me — my number is an on-call number, so they will text me and tell me, ‘Thank you so much for your help. My son and I have been able to rest after being in a shelter.’ “

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But there is always more to do.

“We’re slowly expanding, and I’m looking forward to getting a crew together so we can look at all the areas we need to work with: the elderly, the kids, [the] LGBTQ [community]. There’s just so much that falls under our umbrella,” she says.

One focus will be providing counselors, on call and on site. As the program’s profile has increased, Ahidley says, survivors have referred other people to them. Word of their work is spreading.

“Our No. 1 goal [is] to make sure that our women are safe and not to judge,” she says.

The domestic violence they face is “a problem with all communities, not just here.”

Adams, of Priceless Alaska, says her team of mentors helps trafficking survivors think about the future: what their freedom can look like going forward, with a support system to walk beside them and navigate life.

“We pay a lot of attention to dreams and plan for the future,” she says.

Seeing that future realized is its own reward.

“Living in my world is so dark and so hard,” she says, “and so we cling to those stories when we hear them and they’re so beautiful.”