SMITHFIELD, Va. -- Four years ago we introduced you to Monica Charleston, a woman brave enough to share her past with human trafficking.
While her story wasn't easy to tell, students at Smithfield High School helped amplify her voice. As a class project, they drafted a bill to protect human trafficking survivors.
This month, WTKR reporter Erin Miller checked in to see where Monica and the students are now and how her truth has changed their lives.
"There was a dark side of me, and there was still shame and guilt," said Monica Charleston. "I went through a huge healing process. Although it was hard [and] it was dark, I got through it."
She said it took rigorous self-reflection and even leaving the state to find a new home.
"In order to get to the next level, I had to get rid of all the darkness and all the shame and all that negative energy, I guess you could say," Charleston said. "I just took it day-by-day, did a lot of crying, a lot of writing, a lot of meditating [and] a lot more writing, and yoga."
Students drafted a human trafficking bill in 2018 dubbed "Monica's Law" to better advocate for human trafficking victims and survivors.
Macy Camper was one of the students involved and said the project went far beyond the classroom.
"You definitely take everything that you learn in Mr. Ployd's class with you throughout life," said Macy Camper.
Now a mother herself, Camper said she parents with Monica in mind.
"As a new mom, I am definitely extremely careful, especially out in public. You take everything [that Monica said] to heart, and you just take it with you and you adjust your life to it."
Now others across the state will be adjusting their life to it. Students from Smithfield actually had an influence on House bill 2234, sponsored by Delegate Emily Brewer.
In a statement, Del. Brewer said,
“Legislation I sponsored in 2021, House bill 2234, was signed into law that created the ability for victims of human trafficking to be allowed an affirmative defense in a court of law. This legislation was critical because many human trafficking victims are afraid to come forward for fear of prosecution.I’m hoping that as an advocate for victims, sponsoring legislation that can provide proactive intervention will help eradicate the scourge of human trafficking from our society.
Matt Ployd, Smithfield High School's World History and Government teacher said, "it's overwhelming, I think, to talk to people that have been impacted by legislation they've championed."
Yet, Monica's courage to share her story stretches even further than state law. Phillip Taylor, another former student, saw Monica for the first time and the meeting was emotional as they hugged one another.
"[Seeing Monica] means I'm alive. It means I made it this far," he said. "I'm here, I'm still kicking, I'm still fighting and she is a big reason of why."
Helping facilitate the meeting, Ployd said, "I don't think [the impact] can be understated and the ripples that she's created, and these students have created - is just humbling."
One story of human trafficking, changing the conversation in Smithfield, helping take Monica, and other survivors, from a past filled with sorrow and trauma to a future of change and self-acceptance.
"They knew me and it's OK. Then that allowed me time to heal and to grow. I'm worthy, you know, of all these good things that I never thought that was for me or that I'm because of my past."
Monica is in a new home and is enrolled in college classes, but she said everyone needs to heal at their own pace.