Greg and I had just moved to Ooty after 5 years of what I call my “wilderness” years, in the heart of the teeming metropolis of Mumbai. They were hard years, learning the reality of what we had been called to. The crush of 17 million people on a fairly narrow peninsula, constant noise, pollution, and the poverty, misery, and frenzy of the city had stretched and torn my heart in a hundred ways.
Raising four young children in that environment was a challenge that sometimes overwhelmed me. I longed for clean country air, trees for the children to climb, grass and flowers, and space.
Long before we left, I made my peace with the city. I learned to drive like a race car driver in that madness. I learned that children don't necessarily die from malaria. I learned our daughter could raise frogs in a plastic wagon. All three of our girls found coconut trees to shimmy up. But I still longed to be out in beautiful rural India and raise our children there.
We had come to India to rescue girls from prostitution. The brothels were deep in the bowels of the city. The rescues had to take place there, in the fetid buildings with garbage spilling down steps and rats crawling into the tiny rooms where girls were imprisoned.
If my own children needed clean air and the beauty of nature around them, then what did the wounded girls need? Didn't they need the same thing, far from the scene of unspeakable violence? Didn't they need a small window of time away from the life that nearly destroyed them? A window of time to recalibrate. A window of time to find their true identity. Couldn't nature and pure pursuits and lifestyle heal them? These were the questions I asked in the middle of my city wilderness.
In 2005 Greg and I discovered the small tourist town of Ooty in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, South India. Here was the place we had always dreamed about, the place to raise our children, the place to bring rescued girls. The beauty of the mountains, the flowers, the birds, the nature reserves, the pure air, the cleanness... all took our breath away.
The week after our family relocated to Ooty in March 2005, we had the chance to travel deep into the jungle, an hour and a half away from the town. Bouncing in a rugged ex-military truck that had the strength of a tank, we churned our way through massive muddy ruts through a high altitude rain forest. Breaking out of the dense undergrowth we suddenly emerged onto one of the most breathtaking vistas I had ever seen. Scripture Union (a mission that sets up camps and retreat centers around India) built a small camp on the edge of a pristine blue reservoir. Gorgeous mountains circled the lake, and no habitation was in sight. It was silent, empty, and quite simply, glorious. Heaven on earth. The window I was looking for. The window the rescued girls needed.
Gazing at the view I had another idea. Could I find a church in the US to fund a wilderness camp, four precious days immersed in nature, exclusively for rescued girls? Girls could come from government homes, from private rehabilitation homes, they could come from a whole host of other organizations. Girls could come from the brothels themselves. Come for a break. Come for recalibration.
The camp was wild; a place to confront fears. The lake presented challenges the girls had never encountered before. Rappelling down a thirty-foot cliff and waterfall and kayaking in the lake would require great trust. The perfect recipe for change. I knew that not a single Indian survivor of sex-trafficking had ever had the privilege of going to a wilderness camp. This would be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Freedom Firm was birthed the next year. Greg and I spent a few weeks in the U.S that summer. I shared my dream with one of the new American board members, Holly Leslie (now Holly Andrews), and her church colleague, Bob Devine in a small coffee shop in Minneapolis. Both were members of Bethlehem Baptist church. Both of them caught the vision and shared it with their church.
In 2007 they brought the first small team of volunteers from their church to be camp counselors for the first Freedom Firm Avalanche camp. The church raised the money for the camp, created the curriculum, and brought the team to facilitate the experience. That first camp was just three or four girls. It was an amazing time of experiencing nature, overcoming fears, sharing life stories, learning about God, and growing in trust and care toward one another. The songs, games, canoeing, rappelling, swimming, hiking, camp-fires, teaching times, and pure fun are life-changing catalysts. All in the soft and beautiful arms of nature, girls learn there is a God that creates such beauty. A God who loves them.