Clinton native Alli Mellon has sought out some of the darkest parts of the world — the places where children live on the street, sexual predators lurk in every corner and Christians are often persecuted for trying to help.
Those places, dark and riddled with gruesome injustices, are the hard places and they are where she feels she can help the most.
For Alli, it all started when she was in 11th grade and went with her church youth group to Memphis.
“Service Over Self was the first mission experience I had, and throughout my life, when I was making decisions about school, when I was making decisions about career, everything led back to those weeklong trips in the summer where I was not thinking about myself but serving other people,” she said. “That’s how I just fell in love with mission work.”
It was about 20 years later, while balancing a career of songwriting in Nashville with mission work in 28 different countries through Adventures in Mission, that Alli felt a strong calling.
“I was sitting there at about 11 one night — flipping through the channels — and I came across a movie called Human Trafficking. It was a Lifetime TV special. I had heard of sex trafficking — barely. At the time, it was definitely not something that many people had heard of. It was kind of hush-hush. It was easy to dismiss because nobody knew much about it.”
Something about that documentary blew her mind, she said.
“At the end of that, I was just like, ‘God, don’t let me get up from this couch and walk away and pretend that this doesn’t happen somewhere in the world,’” she said. “There was something about the fact that little-bitty children were being sold for sex that just wouldn’t leave me. It got my attention, and I knew I wanted to do something to help fight it.”
Adventures in Missions, or AIM, where Alli had been working for years, already had mission teams in New Orleans after Katrina, in African refugee camps, in slums teaching informal school and in India where orphans lived on the streets. She had no intention of starting a new organization.
“But (young mission workers) were coming back from these trips and they were so excited and so passionate about what they were doing. They wanted to be challenged more,” Alli said. “They wanted to be stretched further. They weren’t content to just go back to normal life. They wanted to go to the next hardest thing. And I was amazed, because we were sending them to some really hard places, but it wasn’t enough for them.”
The Hard Places Community officially launched February 2008. After finishing up her work with AIM, Alli, as the founder and executive director, went straight to Cambodia, a place where children as young as 3 were being exploited. Her first trip was for a few weeks to begin the set-up process — building relationships, learning the culture and beginning the process of fighting the child sex trade.
“I went back with a set-up team in January 2009 and I was only going to stay for three months. However, instead of coming home, I got my first daughter and the government wouldn’t allow me to leave. So, it’s been seven years, and I’m still there.”
In those seven years, Alli has adopted four Cambodian children, each with his or her own heartbreaking birth story.
“I had wanted to adopt for 15 years. I found myself 40 without a family and was praying, ‘God, where is my family? Where are my children?’” she said. “I didn’t think it was possible at all for me to adopt in Cambodia.”
It was with “an ounce of hope” and a lot of love that Alli was able to adopt Bella, then only 5 1/2 weeks old and swollen from being fed only sweetened condensed milk, which was all her mother had to feed her.
“I stopped at a quick-stop. I had $70 in my purse and I spent it all on bottles and formula and whatever they had and took her home,” she said. “And, the process began of trying to adopt her. Every door was closed in my face, but I quickly got all the legal signatures I needed locally for her to be with me.”
About four months later, Alli received a call to rescue Anna Claire, a 2-day-old malnourished, premature baby covered in ant bites and scrapes from where her mother left her crying.
“She didn’t even care enough to move her,” Alli said. “So, I scooped that baby up and took her home.”
Alli’s family has grown to include Bella, now 7; 6-year-old Anna Claire; 3-year-old Nash; and Nadia, who will turn 2 in May. Nash and Nadia are biological siblings, and their birth mother is an HIV-positive victim of sex-trafficking.
The children have been tested for HIV and “as far as we know they’re negative,” Alli said. Dr. Hannah Gay, the world’s leading pediatric HIV specialist who works at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson worked with Alli through Nadia’s birth and sent medicine to Cambodia for her to take. The medicine helps prevent the crossover of the infection from the mother’s blood.
“I knew, even if they did have it, she would have their best interest in mind and would know what to do,” Alli said.
Upon moving to Cambodia, Alli, who has a master’s in counseling from Vanderbilt, was surprised to find how horrific the situation there actually was.
“Even though I am a professional counselor, I didn’t know anything about the culture. I can’t counsel someone in a different language without the cultural knowledge,” she said. “I had done research for about four years at this point. I had studied a lot, but we wanted to find out if the things that we’re reading and seeing online line up with reality.
“A lot of things are not really accurate. The books I had read said that kids as young as 5 and 6 years old were being sold by their parents for sex.
When I got there, I found out that it’s actually much worse than that. To this day, our youngest girl is 3 and our youngest boy is 4 — and we have a lot of 4-year-old boys.”
Alli has centered her organization’s efforts on helping young boys who had few resources before.
“There was nothing for boys. There was not one shelter, there was not one day center, there was nothing at all,” she said. “We didn’t dismiss girls, and we never said we don’t want to work with them. We just began to focus on boys’ issues. And, we found the issue with boys is horrific. But, it was under a deeper level of darkness than what was happening with the girls.”
Alli said the origin of sex-trafficking in Cambodia is pretty easy to pinpoint. It’s a direct result of the Khmer Rouge Regime, the Civil War that happened just 35 years ago.
“This problem that we have is a direct domino effect of a horrible civil war that a lot of people in Mississippi have no idea happened. The war ended in about 1979,” she said. “After the war, people’s hearts were so hard, because they had seen everyone they know brutally murdered.
“Everybody was about survival. Because everyone was in survival mode and so much rape had happened — so much torture, so many horrific things had happened — people had gotten to the point that, to survive, they couldn’t feel. They were completely numb. So, parents began selling their children for sex as a means to an end.”
The Hard Places Community works with 295 children — 80 who go to the center — and many who have been sold by their parents or grandparents for sex.
“It’s epidemic. Different countries have their issues with drugs, issues with whatever, but we have an issue with parents selling their children for sex,” Alli said.
The center where Alli and her team — a combination of American missionaries and Cambodian staff — provide programming for the neighborhood children is in the middle of the sex tourist district of Phnom Penh.
“I mean, those are two words that should never be in the same sentence — sex and tourist,” she said. “So, what happens is, most of our cases — the big ones you’ll hear us talk about — are all foreign pedophiles who come to Cambodia for the sole purpose of having sex with a child.”
Tourists come to the area relying on pedophile websites, she said, to show them where to go to prey on the children.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How do you find the kids? How do you know who’s abused?’” she said. “All we do is open our door, because we work in the sex tourist area, so every single one of our kids has either been sold, been approached for sex or is in our prevention program.”
Not all of the children have been sold, which means Alli and her staff focus on prevention rather than restoration. Unfortunately, in order to run the organization legally, the Hard Places Community often has to work with children while they are still being trafficked.
“We are a community-based program,” she said. “Our kids aren’t taken out of their environment and put into a safe place. Our kids come to us and they’re there with us for the day and then they go back out and, that night, they are forced to have sex with a grown man.”
The harsh and hard reality with which Alli and her staff are faced seems cruel, but it’s the only way to help, she said.
“People ask us all the time, ‘Why don’t you snatch those kids off the street?’ Well, the reality is that every single step we take has to be approved by the Cambodian government and we have to follow all the rules and protocols,” she said. “If we just snatched kids off the street, we would be forced to leave the country and, then, we couldn’t do any good at all.”
So, she and her staff work with the children, and, when they suspect abuse, they immediately contact the authorities.
“But, the thing is, the authorities in Cambodia will not move on a suspected case. They don’t care if you’ve seen a grown man take a 9-year-old into a guest house,” she said.
The average amount of time between finding out a child is being trafficked and rescuing that child is 22 months, Alli said.
“So, day in and day out, we work with the children while they are still being trafficked. That, to me, is the most difficult,” she said. “They’re not taken into the after-care home. They’re not rescued yet. They’re not behind the safe walls. They are vulnerable children living and working on the streets while we work to get them to a place where it’s not happening anymore.”
The Hard Places Community is currently the only residential after-care program for boys in Cambodia. All of the counseling and restoration work is done within the child’s community, ideally by keeping the child with his or her parents, Alli said, noting the extra work that must be done, first, to break down the walls that allow parents to sell their own children.
“We have a holistic program and we work with the parents. The first thing we try to do with the parent who’s selling their child is break down those walls and help the parent learn to feel again,” she said. “It says in The Bible that God takes a heart of stone and can turn it to flesh. When the parent becomes human — when they begin to feel again — they sit in my office and weep when they realize what they’ve done with their child.”
Witnessing such heartbreaking situations makes even the smallest successes seem like huge milestones.
“For us, we measure success in the little, tiny baby steps. Our goal is for them to be set free from the shame and the trauma of what’s happened to them and for them to be productive, functioning, happy, healthy members of society,” she said. “Our goal is for them to know the hope and future that was destined for them from the time they were born — not the trauma and heartache that they’ve been through. Sometimes our success is measured by the fact that a kid actually went into the classroom that day or by the fact that so-and-so smiled.”
In the biggest case to-date, 40 boys from the Hard Places Community provided testimony, which led to the arrest of Australian professor and pedophile called “Mr. George” by his victims. Six young boys, all regulars in the program, testified to having lived with the professor and received regular sexual abuse.
While his arrest was a victory, the professor was only sentenced to only five years and convicted of child abuse.
“The law in Cambodia for child sex trafficking — he would have gotten 10 to 18 years per offense — but because money never exchanged hands, all they gave him was a child abuse charge, and there’s a very low penalty for child abuse of boys in Cambodia,” Alli said.
Alli said she is able to do the work she does and live in the hard places because of her background in counseling and the strength she receives from God. Having four young children of her own has strengthened her passion.
“I know so much now about what can happen, so I probably scrutinize men and situations more than someone who doesn’t work in this field,” she said.
Being from Mississippi has also given her a certain strength that comes from being part of a community that not only presented an opportunity for her to experience serving others but also supports her mission in huge ways.
“Everything we do in Cambodia is largely supported by Mississippians. All of our major donors are individuals. We don’t have any corporate sponsors. We don’t have grants,” she said. “The churches and individuals who support us in Mississippi make all the wheels go ‘round. Everything we do is directly a result of people who are giving.
“We are sharing this journey and our experiences and all of our victories with hundreds of people right here in Mississippi who are making a difference. And, literally, if you look at our donor list at the people who are giving, I would say 97 percent comes from Mississippi.”
While she and her team still have more work to do in Cambodia, including building a short-term trauma center for boys, Alli hopes to expand to other parts of the world, as well.
“Our program is very successful in Cambodia in reaching these kids, and we feel like we can go to another country where children are being sold on the streets and really make a difference,” she said.
Alli and her team, staying true to their mission and their name, relying on their tagline — “A glimpse of hope for the hopeless in the darkest corners of this world” — will not leave the hard places.
“There are so many places where this is an issue, it’s just — the sky’s the limit. We want to go to where it’s the worst,” she said. “So, when we have the money and when it’s time to do the next thing and we have all the funding bases covered for what we’re already doing, then we’ll look at the next thing.”