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Samantha Martin has spent the past seven months in Los Angeles helping former sex trafficking victims find a better life as part of the Dream Center's Project Hope. The 26-year-old from Oamaru talked to Rebecca Ryan from California about leaving her full-time job for a year of voluntary work to help rescue those who have been enslaved by sex trafficking.
For the past seven months Samantha Martin has been living her dream in Los Angeles - but it is not the dream of glitz and glamour you might associate with the City of Angels.
The 26-year-old has dedicated a year of her life to volunteer work, helping rehabilitate adult female victims of sex trafficking - a far cry from her job in Oamaru, as a meat packer at Lean Meats.
In February, she arrived at the Dream Center, a volunteer-driven organisation, in the heart of Los Angeles, to help
rescue those who have been enslaved by not only human trafficking, but poverty, hunger, homelessness, addiction and other life-controlling issues.
Her focus is Project Hope, a programme dedicated to the rehabilitation of adult female victims of sex trafficking, helping them to become functional, successful members of society in four phases - rescue, rebuild, restore and re-enter.
''When you see a girl come in, she is broken, has bad attitudes and a head full of lies,'' Miss Martin said.
''She has been trained to believe that she is worth nothing and that she can amount to nothing in life.
''She finds it extremely difficult to trust.''
Miss Martin enjoys bringing joy and fun to their lives, producing a smile or a laugh from a woman who has had a rough day.
A graduate from the University of Otago with a degree in Human Nutrition in 2010, Miss Martin had plans to work as a dietitian.
That all changed in 2011, when her eyes were opened to the existence of child sex trafficking.
Volunteering at youth conference Get Smart in Dunedin, she heard the guest speaker, Dream Center founder Pastor Matthew Barnett, share stories about victims and the Los Angeles facility.
''It stirred my heart so powerfully,'' she said.
''I was so taken by the issue that it changed my life direction completely.''
Convinced life at an office desk was not for her, she expressed her desire to help to Pastor Damien Goodsir, of the House of Breakthrough church in Oamaru.
He made arrangements with Pastor Barnett for her to get to the Dream Center in LA.
Miss Martin's living costs for the year have been covered by House of Breakthrough, while she works free.
''Honestly, I could live like this all my life,'' she said.
''I like communal living and going to op shops if I need clothing. It's more of an adventure than having lots of money.''
For Miss Martin, the reward is witnessing the transformation of broken women, who have come out of prisons and off the street, into ''the amazing human beings they were created to be''.
''I get to be a part of setting them up to live again or maybe to truly live freely for the first time,'' she said.
It is a real team effort, and she likes that.
''Each of our staff have unique strengths and wisdom, so together we are a great unit,'' she said.
''The girls' minds become renewed as the lies they have believed are smashed, the truth pours into their hearts about their extremely precious value and for once in their life they begin to feel loved.''
Miss Martin is no stranger to volunteer work, spending time in some of the poorest villages in India in October last year, assessing needs and helping out in any way she could.
She believed those experiences prepared her for the Dream Center, but when she first arrived, she was well out of her comfort zone.
''When our residents got fired up about something and were mad, I didn't know how to handle it,'' she said.
''I have learnt to not be intimidated by that, and to react to it in the opposite manner, with peace and logic.''
In recent weeks, two of the Dream Center's ''rescues'' have talked about what the programme has done for them and how grateful they are for the support from Miss Martin and other volunteers.
''Both made me cry. I just can't believe that I get to be a part of something so powerful and life transforming,'' she said.
''I could never go back to a regular job now. I would be so bored.''
There was so much joy in the little things, she said.
''A special moment for me when I first arrived ... one of the rescues and I were painting our nails and colouring pictures one night, and she told me that when she heard there were new staff coming she had decided that she would not trust us,'' Miss Martin said.
''But she found herself trusting me and shared some of her story with me that night.
''I love it when someone who finds it hard to trust decides to open up and be vulnerable - it's touchingly significant.''
She has been taking part in some token tourist experiences, too, visiting Disneyland, watching an opening night baseball game and taking part in Independence Day celebrations.
''I also spend time with God, because he is the only one who can refresh me and fill me with love to pour out to these girls day in and day out. I am just a channel of his love,'' she said.
She has also enjoyed building relationships with people at the Dream Center.
''I now have a lot of friends from all walks of life, many of them ex-addicts,'' she said.
''I think that's just brilliant, because I see such incredible people here who came from complete brokenness, and now they are people of real character and integrity, living their new life.
''I love the diversity of the backgrounds of the people I meet here.''
Outside work, she keeps on giving.
On Saturdays, hundreds of people from the Dream Center go to poor communities in the area, handing out groceries, picking up rubbish and helping in any way possible.
''I go to one of those sites sometimes and help hand out the groceries and then have a blast playing with the little Latino kids - they are so gorgeous,'' she said.
Pastor Goodsir, of Oamaru, said the House of Breakthrough supported Miss Martin's financially because it connected them to her and her work, and as a church placed focus on what was important.
''She is an inspiring young woman that could do almost anything with her life, but she has chosen to dedicate her life to helping others,'' he said.
''Often we wonder what we can do when we see things on the news or in the paper that break our heart.
"Sam decided that she could make a difference in a practical way by serving and loving those that are broken, lost and hurting.''
This was just the start for Miss Martin, he said.
''What she will learn at the Dream Center will equip her for when she goes to other countries, finding those without a voice or trapped because of their situations. She will give them a voice, unconditional love and support,'' he said.
''We are so proud of Sam and what she has dedicated her life to. We believe that one person can make a difference and Sam is proof of this.''
Miss Martin will work at the Dream Center until February 2015. After that, she plans to return to Oamaru for a while.
''I don't have the plan of what's next, but I believe it will be international and involve meeting the needs of poor, abused kids and trafficking victims,'' she said.
Name: Samantha Martin.
Born: Stratford, Taranaki.
Moved to Oamaru: Aged 5, until 11. Moved back in 2013, to be involved with the House of Breakthrough church.
The Dream Center
• Organisation founded in 1994 and driven by volunteers.
• Helps more than 50,000 individuals and families each month.
• Offers mobile hunger relief and medical programmes, residential rehabilitation, shelter for victims of human trafficking, transitional housing for homeless families, foster care, job skills training, life skills, counselling, basic education and Bible studies.
• Houses about 600 people in the old Queen of Angels Hospital in the heart of Los Angeles.
Project Hope - Sex Trafficking
• Project Hope is a Christian ministry that aims to rescue, rehabilitate and restore the lives of female victims of sex trafficking.
• Sex trafficking is quickly becoming one of the world's most profitable criminal industries.
• Worldwide, it is estimated there are more than 27 million victims.
• The average age of entry into the commercial sex industry is 12 to 14 years old.