A Tampa woman who survived decades of human trafficking has spent the past 14 years providing food and resources to other survivors while trying to save them from the streets. After more than a decade of work, Nancy Hernandez is finally celebrating her organization’s first official location.
The brick and engine location for Ministerio Mujeres Restauradas Por Dios at 4310 Nebraska Ave is the first for the organization. It’s also a long way, but a short distance, from how Hernandez got his start in charity.
“I started in 2007 with a bucket of water and sandwiches here on Nebraska Avenue,” Hernandez said. “I wanted to help the community.
She first worked on the streets bringing sandwiches, water and clothes to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. In 2014, his work was recognized by the Tampa Underground Network, a network of micro-churches and community organizations that operates out of University Mall. She joined the network and worked in her mall until a year ago, when she was able to secure the Nebraska office.
The location was ready after six months of renovations, but the pandemic prevented an official ceremony from taking place. That changed last week when Congresswoman Kathy Castor joined Hernandez and others for an official ribbon cutting.
“A pandemic that no one had ever considered shutting down businesses,” Castor said. “He closed schools for a long time. People have lost their jobs. But people like Nancy never let them lose hope.
It’s a symbolic homecoming for Hernandez. Working on Nebraska Avenue in 2007, she was able to help prostitutes and other survivors of trafficking find a way out. She started there because it was a world she knew well.
“I am a victim of domestic violence,” she said. “Human trafficking. I was a mule.
Hernandez is from Puerto Rico. While visiting family in New York City at age 18, she met an older man who promised her the world. Hernandez came from a poor and somewhat dysfunctional family. This man promised him the American dream.
She listened. She believed in him.
“He sold me a dream. I could be better, ”Hernandez said. “They made me operate everywhere to be pretty. They sent me to Las Vegas to be a companion. A companion for drug dealers, people with money. Then I started to put drugs in my body. I flew to Colombia, to different parts of the world.
Hernandez first worked as an escort for high profile drug traffickers. Then she started to ruminate, to pass drugs into her body. If she refused, she was mistreated.
These weren’t the dreams he had been promised. But she felt she couldn’t get out. The man she met married her, but continued to pimp, beat her, and force her to traffic drugs around the world.
It took 27 years for Hernandez to escape. She was 45 when her husband died and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By the time she found it, cancer had metastasized to most of her body, a likely byproduct of years of introducing harsh chemicals.
But she found good doctors and dedicated her life to God. So she returned to the streets, this time to save others and bring the help she has spent years seeking for herself.
“That’s why I had the passion to help the community,” Hernandez said. “I promised my daughter, my family and God that I would no longer be on this path. That I will help women, girls and young people to no longer be victims of domestic violence.
Her new mission was also the name of her ministry: women restored by God.
Hernandez was able to transform the distribution of water and sandwiches into rent, shelter, food and financial aid. She also added health services and hopes to expand further.
Some of these expansions have already taken place. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, she helped send care packages to her native island and helped displaced Puerto Ricans from the island find food, shelter and work in Florida.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Hernandez has kept the job going. She distributes food from the Nebraska office on Wednesday mornings and every Friday picks up a truck to migrant communities like Wimauma and other locations in East Hillsborough to deliver food.
And although her ministry and mission has grown to help many people in Tampa, she still hopes that she can save the women and children of the world from whom she has spent almost half of her life trying to escape.
“You can get out of there. You are not alone, ”she said. “This woman is here for you. This woman is here to help you.
If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence or human trafficking, Hernandez can be contacted by email [email protected] or by calling (813) 965-4981.
You can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.