“My life isn’t about me,” insists Amber Hampton. “It’s not a story about me, it’s a story about people, and healing, and hope, and redemption.”
Hampton’s day job is director of survivor care at End Slavery Tennessee, where she works to combat human trafficking, and her nights and weekends she spends with her “street family” while she helps lead local volunteer organization Murfreesboro Cold Patrol.
It’s a calling she almost missed by about 1,500 miles.
El Salvadorian dreams
After Hampton left her job at a Birmingham church, she hightailed it to El Salvador where she’d done short-term missions in the past.
“I wanted to go somewhere where things weren’t so complicated and people weren’t so self-focused, and just start over from the beginning,” Hampton said. “(I) hopped on a plane, went to El Salvador for a couple of months, and then came back with the intention that I was going to move there full time.”
She earned her Global Studies degree from MTSU at near-record speed, double minoring in Spanish and religious studies so she could work with at-risk youth targeted by gangs.
“I graduated in December, and in March after I graduated, I went back to El Salvador to kind of figure everything out,” Hampton said. “It was the worst month of my life.”
She came back to Murfreesboro and her job at a coffee shop to regroup.
A new family
“I remember that I was praying one night, and I was like, ‘God, you gotta give me something…’ I really felt like I heard him say, ‘We need to go find people and feed them breakfast on Sunday mornings.’”
Hampton thought it was “oddly specific,” especially since at the time, in 2010, she didn’t think there were any homeless folks in Murfreesboro.
She called a friend and pitched him the idea. On the first Sunday they served pancakes out of The Experience Community, pancake batter got everywhere and they blew the breakers to the whole church. About five people showed up.
“The next Sunday it was 10. And then it was 20. It started doubling every week until we started running consistently like a 100, 150 people. And I got to know people and hang out with people,” Hampton said. “I found this entire street family that I would have never encountered otherwise because I was so focused on going to El Salvador.”
Hampton says Cold Patrol formed pretty organically as other folks doing similar work starting meeting together, trying to look out for their homeless friends.
“We weren’t doing anything big or fancy. It was literally just hanging out with people, because you can’t help people if you don’t know them.”
One of the first people she started getting to know was her friend Larry, a veteran who passed away in September.
“I actually went to get my master’s because of Larry,” Hampton said. “He would come (into the coffee shop) every day and we would talk, and I would go to his camp and hang out with him. He would bring his mouse, he would bring me presents. And it wasn’t just him, but he was probably the biggest contributing factor because I started to see all of these folks who had such complex trauma.”
While there are resources available for folks living with past trauma, Hampton says her street family may not seek out those resources on their own.
“I wanted to be able to go back to school so that I had the skills to come to them, whatever that looked like. So I went back to school for social work with an emphasis in interpersonal practice with the intention of doing counseling.”
End Slavery Tennessee
Hampton first started doing youth crisis counseling during school, “because I love people in hard places.” She was surfing job boards for opportunities when she found the opening at End Slavery Tennessee, and everything clicked into place.
“As soon as I walked through the doors I was like, ‘This is where I need to be,’” she said. “I fell in love with the people and the organization and what they do.
“End Slavery is a single point of contact for human trafficking survivors in Middle Tennessee… We have three safe houses, and I think we served 190 survivors this year that we work with. We work with minors and adults. They’re coming right out of it.”
She says these survivors, many of whom have been in captivity for longer than they’ve been free, are incredibly resilient.
“You see people who have literally touched Hell and come back. They bounce back. They’re capable of rebuilding their lives, and that’s super inspiring to me.”
‘There is hope’
For Hampton, giving hope to people who don’t have any is paramount, whether it’s her street family or trafficking survivors.
“Seeing somebody that the rest of the world has completely given up on, they feel like there’s absolutely no hope, and watching them learn… there is hope, that they are cared about, that the world isn’t all bad and there’s good still out there… it matters. It makes a difference.”
She calls it “slow work,” the path to healing for folks who’ve been so badly hurt. But Hampton believes in small, slow miracles. She’s seen them happen again and again.
“It’s about the heart of Jesus. He doesn’t give up on people. He doesn’t judge you,” Hampton said. “When you’re ready, he’s there. That’s what I tell everybody that we work with. When you’re ready, I’m here.”
Bearing witness to the ways her friends have been abused and neglected is difficult, but it isn’t the whole story.
“You see all the bad in the world, and all the terrible stuff that happens, but you also see a lot of good,” she said.
And sometimes, you get to share it.
“My dad came up last year for the first time,” Hampton said.“He cried because he got to come meet some of our folks and got to see the effects of what was happening.”
She said what’s happening is actually very simple.
“You’re not going to let your friend stay there in the middle of an addiction and not do anything about it. You’re just not. You’re not going to let your friend be exploited and abused and not say anything. So if you legitimately love and you legitimately care about people, you’re going to do something to stop that.”
End Slavery Tennessee always needs supplies for welcome kits and encouraging notes for survivors, and Murfreesboro Cold Patrol needs new socks, and as temperatures drop, blankets and tents.