Survivors of sex trafficking find healing in cooking class

It's been more than three decades since Gina Cavallo left her New Jersey home and took two jobs in the Fort Lauderdal...

Posted: May 29, 2018 9:18 AM
Updated: May 29, 2018 9:18 AM

It's been more than three decades since Gina Cavallo left her New Jersey home and took two jobs in the Fort Lauderdale area of Florida. She was hired by a rental car company and also doing work as a waitress. She befriended an older man that she trusted.

One day, the man invited Cavallo to meet his family.

"He took me to his door to meet his family, he bolted the doors, and that was it. There was no family," Cavallo told PIX11.

Cavallo said what followed was a beating, forced ingestion of drugs, and rape. She didn't escape the darkness for three years, although she was moved around a lot.

"I remember Canada. I remember being on the border of Mexico. I remember being in New York, in Florida and Georgia," Cavallo said.

She cried when she recalled seeing other people at one border crossing.

"There were people passing, and I wish I had stopped them," Cavallo said through tears.

Cavallo said she got away from her trafficker in Las Vegas, when a woman she met in a casino phoned her parents. She was on a plane to New Jersey that night and reunited with her mother and father.

But Cavallo said she largely blocked her trafficking years from her mind.

When she told her first husband about it, she said her in-laws were upset to hear about her background. Her husband took their advice and divorced her.

"I was really broken about that," Cavallo recalled. "So I started to use drugs and alcohol."

Cavallo married a second time, but that didn't work out either. She has two daughters in their 30s.

She said her mind buried her secrets for years, until she attended a retreat at Emergence Church in Totowa, New Jersey.

The program is called Redemption and Recovery.

"I am so grateful," Cavallo said. "I feel the chains being removed."

Cavallo joined a cooking group run by Mentari, an organization founded by Shandra Woworuntu.

Woworuntu was flown to New York from Malaysia more than 15 years ago by a shady group that told her she'd get work as a waitress. Instead, she was sold to a trafficker. Six months into the ordeal, she managed to jump from a second floor window in Sunset Park.

Woworuntu was reunited with her young daughter and later gave birth to a son in the United States. Her work has been recognized with a national award from the L'Oreal organization.

All Souls Unitarian Church on Lexington Svenue offered Mentari the use of its commercial kitchen.

"It's a privilege, really, to be doing this program," said chef John Moogan.

"Being able to feed people is a real gift for the community," he said.

Samantha Inesta, Program Director for Mentari's culinary arts program, said the program gives women who were living interdependent lives independence.

"They learn everything from chopping and boiling to sauté and frying," Inesta said. "They're able to get s job, sustain themselves, and from that, get an apartment, they have their own money."

The women have learned to make appetizers, salads and homemade chicken soup.

Shandra Woworuntu now wants to publish a cook book to help the women-and to assist Mentari with offering more programs.

Anyone who would like to help can contact Mentariusa.org.

Gina Cavallo told us the cooking program has empowered her.

"To me, it's therapeutic. I love to cook," Gina said.

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