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Students Start Non-Profit to Shelter Survivors of Commercial Sexual Exploitation

Lauren Burnetta and Rachel Rutter, 2015 Lauren Burnetta and Rachel Rutter

December 16, 2015

Inspired by a service learning trip to Costa Rica, a group of students have launched a non-profit organization that will provide a refuge for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation.

Project Libertad aims to provide transitional housing and support services to those who have substance abuse problems and are therefore unwelcome at Philadelphia’s existing shelters for commercial sexual exploitation survivors, which require sobriety for admittance.  

“That’s basically saying, ‘Find a way to get sober on the streets for three months,’” said 2L Lauren Burnetta, one of four Kline School of Law students behind Project Libertad.

The organization intends to provide short-term housing as well as support and services to CSE survivors fighting addiction before referring them for long-term care.

“Our goal is to remove these people from the toxic environment in which a lot of this is occurring,” said 3L Rachel Rutter, who started the group with Burnetta, 3L Kim Hollenback and 3L Brittany Dyer. “We want them to have a safe space [where sobriety is possible], as opposed to having us as a resource in the day but then still going home to the same area where the problem exists at night.”

Rutter, Burnetta, and Hollenbeck began talking about starting a non-profit of their own in March while volunteering in Costa Rica—a service-learning trip organized through the law school’s Domestic Violence Law Society, which Rutter and Hollenback founded. As they worked with local groups to help protect Costa Rican teens from human trafficking, they discussed what they would do differently there and in the U.S. The conversation continued in Philadelphia, where the difference they could make locally became clear with research.

Since August, the group has filed articles of incorporation and run a successful GoFundMe campaign to cover some of Project Libertad’s start-up costs, such as the IRS fee to apply for 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. To help complete that step and begin taking large donations, the students connected with Professor Karl Okamoto, director of the business and entrepreneurship law program.

At the heart of Project Libertad is a shelter to house up to six women at a time for up to 90 days each. “We've looked into the Philadelphia Land Bank and purchasing an abandoned property instead of buying an empty lot or building something totally new,” said Rutter, preferring to renovate “something that already exists in the community to make a shelter.”

To find out more about Project Libertad and follow the students’ progress, visit