On Jan. 3, 2006, 15-year-old Suamhirs Rivera was working at a Pizza Hut in Honduras.
When his shift was over, Rivera left the establishment and quickly his world turned upside down.
“All of a sudden I felt a wet T-shirt over my mouth,” he said.
Rivera was kidnapped and smuggled into the U.S.
He was brought to City Heights in San Diego and locked in a small, dark room.
“The door was only opened for two purposes,” Rivera said. “It was for men and women to come in and rape me or to feed me (once a day). They would give me cocaine and Viagra.”
Rivera was a guest speaker last week at a Bonita fundraiser for I Walk 4 Peace, an event sponsored by the Bonita Center for Spiritual Living and Interactions for Peace in Chula Vista.
“I was glad to be invited to this event to promote peace and love,” Rivera said.
Interactions for Peace founder and Executive Director Eden Steele asked Rivera to speak.
“His story is so powerful and yet it’s so hopeful to hear what he’s been through to know that one person can make a difference,” Steele said.
Through Interactions for Peace, Steele has created a system of awareness, education and action for the community.
“The whole purpose of the walk is to bring the community together to celebrate and encourage and facilitate an opportunity for people to bring peace into their lives,” Steele said.
Rivera’s story is just one of many.
Human sex trafficking is the most common form of modern-day slavery, according to the FBI.
For six months, Rivera was sold over and over to the highest bidder.
“Many people came in and out of the room,” he said. “I lost count.”
Eventually, Rivera lost hope. He began cutting himself with a broken beer bottle someone had left behind.
“I decided I was going to kill myself,” Rivera said. “I was not going to be someone’s fetish anymore.”
That same night, July 27, 2006, a team of law enforcement officials raided the house.
“I believe there was a higher power that kept me alive,” he said.
After his rescue, he was sent to a mental hospital for nearly two weeks, and then placed into the foster care system where he was in and out of 17 institutions until he aged out in 2009.
Rivera said he was diagnosed several times, including with reactive detachment disorder, a condition found in children who have been neglected or abused and unable to develop healthy relationships. Behaviors include defiance, avoidance and resistance.
Then a light came on at the end of a bleak tunnel when he met the person who changed his life.
“When my CASA (court-appointed special advocate) came along, that was a big breaking point,” Rivera said. “Marcos introduced me to a world that was full of joy, free of pain, fear of failure.”
He also helped Rivera through the green card process, so he could stay in the states.
In the U.S., Rivera could get a better job and send money back to his family. He wanted to live the American dream.
He became employed as a legal assistant with Casa Cornelia Law Center in San Diego where he helped prepare cases for minors who were victims of human trafficking.
Rivera, 22, soon dedicated his life to promoting peace and telling his story as therapy for himself and hope for others.
“There have been many times that could have broken me, but there are many, many times that I’ve found peace,” Rivera said to the audience. “I found my voice as an advocate.”
Today Rivera is a youth leadership trainer with the Caring Helpers program for nonprofit agency Mental Health Systems, which works to improve the lives of individuals, families and communities facing substance abuse and behavioral health challenges.
He will soon graduate from UCSD with a double major in political science and international relations.
Ultimately, Rivera wants to become a civil rights attorney.
“I want to make sure they (victims) know that there’s hope.”
I Walk 4 Peace will be held at Rohr Park in Bonita on March 9 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
For more information visit interactionsforpeace.org or cslbonita.org.
Profits from the fundraiser and walk go to Interactions for Peace and Center for Spiritual Living.