Thirteen years ago, Ruth Williams remembers, she was flipping through the pages of a magazine while she waited to see her hairdresser. She came across an article about girls rescued from human trafficking in Cambodia, and she saw a picture of a 5-year-old girl.
Williams, a mother of six who runs Puddle Ducks Day Care, was arrested by the image. She couldn’t get the girl out of her head, so she wrote a letter to the Cambodian woman at the center of the article, named Somaly Mam, who was rescuing the girls.
Williams never expected a reply, but her letter sparked a friendship with Somaly and the 5-year-old, named Mou.
She sent her a pair of pink pajamas, and the girl wore them for a week straight.
These days, Mou is almost 18 and a resident of the Tom Dy Center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The center is run by an organization called AFESIP, which was founded by Somaly in 1996. The organization rescues woman and children from slavery and provides housing, education and job training.
Mou speaks English, is planning to go to a university and wants to travel the world.
“She is graceful, smart, happy and confident, and that’s all I could ever want for her,” Williams said.
Williams, who refers to Mou as her “daughter,” saw her in March during an annual trip to Cambodia with a local nonprofit she founded in 2006 called Heart Mothers. Through Heart Mothers, women are paired with young residents in Cambodia who have been orphaned or were sold or kidnapped into slavery.
Each month, the group sends a box with letters from each woman to her “heart daughter,” along with gifts such as school supplies or toiletries.
“These kids more than anything want a mother figure,” Williams said.
What began as an effort driven by pure emotion — Williams will tell you she started Heart Mothers out of anger — has these days become an operation with a board of directors, nonprofit status, a core of impassioned volunteers and a multi-pronged fundraising program that’s on track to generate thousands of dollars a year for the center.
“It’s like a machine that’s just rolling,” Williams said of Heart Mothers.
Five women with Heart Mothers traveled to Cambodia in March, ferrying 15 duffel bags that weighed 50 pounds apiece filled with donations and supplies for the center, plus gifts for the girls.
Morgan Skinner, a student at the University of Wyoming who is the secretary for Heart Mothers, made her first trip to Cambodia since joining the organization about a year ago. She was most looking forward to meeting her “heart daughter” for the first time.
She remembers sitting in the center’s library waiting for a group of older girls to return from school. She was nervous about recognizing her daughter right away, but she knew to look for her dimpled smile.
“All of a sudden I hear this girl, and she goes ‘Mom’ and bursts into tears,” Skinner said. “I started crying.”
The girl, 17, put her hands to Skinner’s face for a close-up look. Skinner had earlier sent the girl a photo of her family, and the girl had drawn herself into the portrait.
“I miss her every day,” Skinner said.
Human trafficking and forced labor is reportedly a $150 billion industry worldwide, with more than 20 million people enslaved around the world, according to some estimates.
Woman and girls are often taken from poor countries and forced into prostitution. In Cambodia, sources say, a third of commercial sex workers are children.
The stories of the girls at the center are hard to listen to. They recall being kidnapped into slavery, or sometimes sold by family members. Some were kept inside without a glimpse of sunlight for years, forced to serve a couple dozen clients a day. They were beaten, burned, strangled and left for dead.
“All the girls feel so deeply for each other,” Skinner said.
The Tom Dy Center is one of three centers run by AFESIP, each able to house about 60 residents. Through multiple visits to Cambodia in previous years, Williams has watched girls grow up, leave the centers, attain higher education and return to help.
“They are confident, loving, amazing young women,” she said. “It’s full circle, seeing what an education and the brilliant things about the center have done for them.”
In 2017, Heart Mothers sent about $12,000 to the center, which was used for a new kitchen and new sewer line. The center is in the midst of building a security wall.
“It’s amazing how far the dollar will go,” Williams said.
The center has no room for more occupants, but current fundraising efforts will go toward the installation of bunkbeds so more girls can live there. Even when the centers are full, girls who needs homes aren’t turned away.
Before this year, almost all the money Heart Mothers has donated has been raised through cupcake sales. For the last several years, Williams has been baking hundreds of cupcakes a week in the summer and selling them at the Laramie Farmer’s Market.
Using a recipe from her home country of England, she spends her weekday evenings baking and frosting. When the market isn’t open, she sells cupcakes through a website called The Sugar Mouse Cupcake House. Cupcakes are also for sale at The Wild Rose Flowers and Gifts, 2710 Grand Ave.
The group’s new board of directors, complete with a fundraising coordinator, has expanded fundraising efforts in new directions.
Because of the organization’s 501c3 status, Heart Mothers can accept donations online. The group also accepts donations through the AmazonSmile Foundation, which gives away a portion of Amazon purchases. The Z Club at Laramie High School is planning a summer 5k fundraiser on their behalf, and a fall garage sale is in the works.
Williams said she’s relieved she doesn’t have to do as much work on her own.
“They’re all completely impassioned by it,” she said of her fellow volunteers.
The group’s next effort is a fundraising breakfast today. The Heart Mothers Breakfast and Silent Auction Fundraiser is scheduled for 7-10 a.m. today at Chili’s Grill & Bar, 2523 Grand Ave.
Tickets are $10 for an all-you-can-eat meal including pancakes, sausage, bacon, fruit, breakfast burritos and drinks. Silent auction items include a Khmer tapestry, gift baskets, UW athletics memorabilia, cupcake gift certificates and more.
Williams said the group is aiming to surpass 2017’s fundraising total.
“We feel like we can help the girls more than ever,” she said.