Safe Harbor's Mel Alvar champions the Northland's sexually exploited and vulnerable youths

·6 min read

Jun. 11—Mel Alvar stops talking mid-sentence. The Duluth Police Department is on the other line.

This is one call she can return later, but they're not all like that.

Alvar is a regional navigator for Safe Harbor, an arm of the Minnesota Department of Health, which funds shelter, legal protection and more for sexually trafficked or exploited youths. She described her role as the Google of human trafficking services for northeast Minnesota. So, if law enforcement picks up a kid in a trafficking situation, they call Alvar, who can connect them with housing, clothing or food.

"She's improving the lives, particularly of the youth, in the Duluth area," said Annie LaFrinier-Ritchie, Safe Harbor regional navigator for west central Minnesota.

She always had fantastic skills for education, community outreach and systems change, LaFrinier-Ritchie said of Alvar. "I wouldn't say her skills have evolved, but her own confidence and ability have evolved to do this on a larger level."

"Without Mel doing what she does, youth in our community would fall through the cracks," said Tatiana Bergum, a Duluth mental health practitioner and Safe Harbor program coordinator.

"She's not saving anyone; she's not out there trying to fix all the things, but without her role, without her understanding and expertise, Duluth wouldn't be a community where survivors and youth in general could be as supported," Bergum added.

Alvar has been at this job since 2018, but it's one she has been working toward for much longer. She grew up in Duluth. In high school, she worked in peer education and advocacy through Planned Parenthood's Teen Council. She experienced sexual violence in her mid-teens, and in her early 20s, she went through an unhealthy and abusive relationship.

"After that happened to me, I didn't know what I could do, who I should talk to. It wasn't anything I was learning in school. But once, in Teen Council, I knew where to point people in the right direction, and that was very healing for me," she said.

Alvar found empowerment teaching others about comprehensive sex education, consent and social justice. It was then she knew her path would lead to public health and promotion.

As she started to open up about her past, she felt less alone. She started to let go of the shame around her past, and she realized others had had similar traumatic experiences. From there, Alvar became a teen representative on the Take Back the Night committee and was first introduced to PAVSA, where she would later serve as a youth advocate. Getting involved in the community helped her heal and helped her feel seen. It was the path that led to the work she does now.

"I felt like I was made for this kind of leadership," she said.


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There's more to be done, Alvar said, but she has seen developments in our community. Local partnerships are a lot stronger in the court system and education. Our systems are more victim-centered and trauma-informed. People younger than 18 cannot be prosecuted for what is now recognized as "survival sex."

In other communities, law enforcement might not want to work with victim advocates. But in Duluth, they work together from the beginning. "They trust us, and that's huge," Alvar said. "We need to give credit for the work that's been done here."

Up next are the issues that intersect with sex trafficking, such as housing, food insecurity and substance abuse issues, which need to be tackled simultaneously, she said.

Trafficking has been around since colonization, Alvar said, so she promotes a realistic view of this public health crisis.

"As long as there's people who are willing to take advantage of vulnerable populations in any way, you will have trafficking occur," Bergum recalled as a lesson from Alvar she has not forgotten. "The work we're doing, there's no end to it. We're here to support the youth who are experiencing or surviving it.

"That made a huge mental shift for me. ... I do my work differently now based on that comment."

Shortly after she was promoted, Alvar gave birth to her son — a life change she at one time didn't see for herself.

"Doing this work honestly made me think I didn't want to have kids in the beginning just because of the horrors of the world," she said. "I had enough conversations with people that's, like, 'You do your best as a parent to empower them to be good people and to make good choices and just trust that you did the best you could for them. Ultimately, they're their own person, and they're going to go out in the world and do things with or without what you told them."

It's an interesting experience being a new parent in this field, but her work informs her parenting. She has been having early conversations with her son about body autonomy, and they read books like "Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent and Respect."

"I am a good parent because I can have conversations and be the safe space," she said.

Fatigue and burnout can be common companions to the intensity of this field, as well as vicarious trauma. As advocates, they know the realities, she said, but it's still hard.

"I learned I can't take these stories home with me," she said. "I did my best to support them, believe them, empower them with resources and support."

Also, everything drops for a client. Emails get missed or other things may fall to the wayside because people are the most important part of the work.

Good self-care techniques make it so she can sustain in this work, so Alvar checks in with herself frequently and explores self-care on a weekly basis through crystal healing work, jewelry-making, workouts and tarot cards.

"I lift heavy weights and feel like a badass three times a week. That's what keeps me sane," she said.

She considers her spiritual, physical and emotional needs. She eats more unprocessed foods, doesn't consume a lot of sugar. She takes personal days when she needs them. Pre-pandemic, her self-care involved interactions with people and seeing live music, but she went inward the past year, turning to journaling and internal processing. She started a parenting podcast.

The gratification of the job arrives in the smallest forms: a struggling youth who answers the phone, a flash of real willingness to meet with an advocate, that's a win, she said.

And, she said: "The resiliency in survivors is the most incredible thing to witness."

This field is not for everybody, but "I'm here to stay as long as the funding is here, and unfortunately, we've got a lot of work to do."