Keren Gordon was trapped.
In her mid-teens, she traveled to Belize in search of her grandmother and was befriended by a woman who promised to help. Within days of arriving, she found herself handcuffed naked to a bed in a basement, and forced to have sex for others’ profit. When she dared fight back, to bite her attackers, they beat her black and blue.
Then, finally, she saw her opportunity to escape. There had been a party upstairs, but now it was quiet. Keren freed herself and investigated, poking gently at her captors with her foot. She realized everyone had passed out.
Beaten and bloodied, she ran. And ran. And ran.
She ran until an older man stopped his car to ask if she needed help. Her instinct was to keep running. But then she heard Christian music coming from his radio and decided to take a chance. Her rescuer’s name was Daniel. He eventually took her home to his wife, children and grandchildren, gave her a room in his home, and paid her to work in the orchard.
Daniel, who has since passed away, is one of few bright spots in her past.
Now, at 19, she dares to hope for more bright spots.
In October, at about the time she turns 20, Keren will give birth to her first baby—a boy. She’ll take care of her baby, work full time and begin taking online classes through Grand Rapids Community College.
It’s an ambitious plan, and she’s doing it all with support and encouragement from the Spectrum Health Maternal Infant Health Program, which provides a helping hand for new moms, and Strong Beginnings, a program that offers additional services to eligible African-American and Hispanic participants until their children turn 2 years old.
Against all odds
Keren’s battle for a good life began before her birth in Guatemala.
When her mother was pregnant, a relative tried to trick her into drinking rat poison to end the lives of both mother and baby. When Keren was only 2, her mother was murdered.
She was raised by her maternal great-grandmother, Violetta, because her father and his family rejected her. As an 8-year-old, she was raped. Her uncle tracked down the rapist a couple of years later and forced Keren to watch as he brutally exacted revenge on the perpetrator.
After Violetta died of a stroke, 13-year-old Keren’s life became more unsettled. She moved from relative to relative, suffered sexual abuse, and left school because of lack of money to pay her fees. Eventually she decided to seek out her maternal grandmother in Belize. That’s how, as a young teen, she found herself in a basement, a victim of sexual trafficking.
After her escape, a friend persuaded Keren to immigrate to the United States to try for a better life. Together, they made their way through Mexico, and finally over the border to El Paso.
Once in the U.S., Keren was helped by various agencies, she earned her high school diploma, and she even made the honor roll. She learned English with help from foster parents, using Google translate, and watching the Spanish channel on television with English captions.
Ready to fly
Keren now has a full-time job and recently became certified as an interpreter, which she hopes will lead to better job opportunities.
With a baby on the way, life still holds challenges and difficulties. Her baby’s father was recently deported to Guatemala, so she traveled there with the hope of helping him enter the United States legally so they can be married.
She also used that opportunity to visit her mother’s grave, and she now keeps a photo of the headstone on her iPhone.
Keren’s delivery is just around the corner, and she is determined to give her baby a better future. She is getting practical support and education from the Maternal Infant Health Program, a Spectrum Health Healthier Communities program, which helped 1,100 families last year, according to program supervisor Susan Henning.
The program teams up a nurse, dietitian, social worker and community health worker to help new mothers have healthy pregnancies and healthy babies.
“Keren is very outgoing, very inspired and full of perseverance. She wants to get ahead,” said her community health worker, Esther Briones. “She told me she wants to continue her education, but her baby comes first.”
Keren is hopeful.
She has a tattoo on her right shoulder that sums up her philosophy: It features a flock of birds flying into the sky and lyrics borrowed from a rock and roll song: “You gotta fall before you fly.”
“People are going to judge you because you are young and they see you pregnant,” Keren said. “Don’t judge my choices without knowing my reasons. I won’t give up even though sometimes it’s hard to keep going.”
Despite her end-of-pregnancy fatigue, there is a glow about Keren, especially as she talks about her future with her baby and his father.
“We are trying our best to keep smiling,” she said.
Her goal? To be a good mom.
Her dream? To complete college and become a counselor, helping young pregnant women in Guatemala avoid abortions, providing the support they need to have their babies and, when appropriate, placing them for adoption with American parents so they can have better futures.