TRABUCO CANYON, Calif. — Over the years, Hayley Gravino has met more therapists than she can count, but none that have four legs and a tail.
A sex trafficking survivor, Gravino finds comfort in an unusual place, with an animal who’s also suffered abuse — a horse called Spirit.
“I feel love,” she said as she hugged Spirit. “I feel an emotional connection.”
The therapy session is paid for by The Teen Project, a transitional home that offers psychological counseling, education and life skills to hundreds of girls who have aged out of the foster care system with nowhere to go.
The organization was founded by Lauri Burns, a former foster child.
“I left foster care, and I was trafficked and I ended up working the streets,” she said. “I was picked up one night and taken into the woods by very dangerous men, and they were going to kill me that night.”
Thankfully, a good Samaritan noticed Burns on the side of the road and saved her life. Burns was able to get sober, go back to school and become a computer networking engineer. It was then that she decided to pay it forward.
“The bottom line is, kids end up on the street alone, hungry, nowhere to go, and they are prey for the worst predators,” she said.
About 60% of child sex trafficking survivors have been within foster care system. The Teen Project has 126 beds, and the girls can stay up to two years.
“We get them through intensive therapy to work on all things they believe about themselves that is not true, and we unravel that,” Burns said.
After being sexually abused by her uncle at 16, Gravino became addicted to drugs. While in rehab in a facility in West Hollywood, she was trafficked by the very people tasked with helping her. She came to The Teen Project hoping to get sober for her 3-year-old daughter.
“There’s been times where I haven’t been the best Hayley that I need to be,” she said. "So I’m here also to be the best mom that I can be.”
Gravino attends up to eight hours of therapy a day, including equine therapy, which involves learning about horses, stroking their sides and brushing their mains as a way to build trust with the animals.
“There’s some scientific research that horse’s hearts are nine times larger than ours, and it beats at 60 beats per minutes, so their magnetic field is big and powerful,” said Sue Conklin, a licensed clinical social worker at Amelia Grace Farms. “Oftentimes we start to co-regulate. We start to slow down. We start to breathe like they do, and when we’re calmer and soother, we can talk about some of those more traumatic things.”
For Gravino, it’s a rare moment of peace — one she hasn’t felt in years.
"I feel like there is no judgement, and I feel calm."