The sexual abuse started when she was 4. Three men who should have been Breanna Buckhalton's fiercest protectors instead became her predators.

By the time she reached her teen years, already a veteran of the foster care and juvenile justice systems, it seemed like much of her identity revolved around her sexuality. She toyed with the idea of becoming a stripper or traveling with a man to Iowa to give "happy ending" massages, a cover for prostitution.

"I thought that's all I was worth, to be a sexualized tool for men," Buckhalton said.

Before she could act on those plans, however, a judge ordered her to complete the Girls Circle H.E.A.R.T. program — Healing, Empowerment and Recovery from Trauma — run by the Greater Twin Cities YMCA.

Designed to help teenage girls process early sexual trauma, understand how it affects their self-worth and change their direction, the three-year-old program marks an intentional expansion of services offered by the YMCA in recent years that go beyond its fitness centers and health programs.

Buckhalton, 19, credits the program and the birth of her daughter, Celina, with saving her life. She now has her own apartment in Fridley, she and her boyfriend are raising their daughter and she's thinking about a different kind of future as a professional working mother.

The Y has increased partnerships with state and local government to offer critical social services, including programs to house homeless youths, mentor teens in the juvenile justice system and assist youths who become too old for foster care.

The Y is also launching "Enough" in partnership with Safe Harbor Minnesota, a supportive service program for all genders that offers one-on-one community-based services to young people who have either experienced sexual exploitation and human trafficking or are at a high risk of doing so.

YMCA President and CEO Glen Gunderson pointed out that the Y has 29 locations and program sites, thousands of trained employees and deep community connections.

"We have to shake up the community so they understand these things are happening," he said. "We need to have more resources pointed at those who need us the most. We are trying to charge into these areas."

'You are not alone'

Paula Schaefer co-wrote the Girls Circle H.E.A.R.T. curriculum. As an advocate and a consultant, Schaefer traveled to probation departments and juvenile facilities around the country. Unaddressed and untreated sexual abuse and trauma are common experiences among the majority of girls in the criminal justice system, she said.

"There was no help or support for girls to address their trauma," Schaefer said. "I wanted girls to know it's not their fault, and to get help with the impact from sexual abuse and violence." Schaefer is currently the Safe Harbor training coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Health.

Sessions of about 10 girls typically meet a dozen times in a warmly decorated space designed specifically for the program, which provides psychological support and a safe space to share emotions and experiences.

The girls formulate personal safety plans for themselves and develop new coping skills.

"You are not alone. We are here to talk," said Jenny Miller, a director for the Y's Youth Intervention Services. "It's powerful and incredible to see the young women willing to do the work."

Topics include what constitutes sexual abuse, the effects of sexual abuse, relationships and trust, and being in charge of one's emotions — "your vulnerabilities, when it comes to your life experiences, to be a perfect target," Miller said.

Sharing their struggles

Growing up, Buckhalton had a tumultuous home life. She recalled sexual abuse at the hands of three different men.

At one point she was placed in foster care, which caused more trauma. She eventually went to live with a family member, but money was tight and she felt pressure to contribute financially.

She was always a good student, she said, but her focus began shifting to sex and parties. She knew those were bad choices, but she struggled to beat back her impulsiveness.

"I just wanted to get money and have fun," she said.

She was leery when the judge ordered her to enter the H.E.A.R.T. program; she had come to view other girls as rivals. But the sessions with two trained women staffers and other girls were personal and intimate, and Buckhalton began to understand that others shared her struggles.

"A lot of females do go through the same sort of thing," she said

Annastasia Guilfoyle, a youth support program manager, was one of the staffers who led Buckhalton's group. "We are just as vulnerable with them about how we feel about things," Guilfoyle said. "It's almost like we teleport into a safe bubble."

The Y paired Buckhalton with a life coach who helps young people no longer eligible for foster care to figure out adulthood — how to rent an apartment, manage a budget, draft a résumé, search for a job, even plan meals and shop for groceries.

On a recent afternoon, Buckhalton and Celina, Y life coach Brianna Haugen and Guilfoyle went to Cub Foods in Fridley. It's a trip that many middle-class teens and young adults take for granted, a regular errand they've watched their parents take for years.

But for Buckhalton, a loving, safe relationship, stable home and child are all new territory. She said she is grateful and inspired by the female Y staffers who have help shepherd her. She now does some paid advocacy work on the Y youth advisory board and is interested in a career in psychology.

"I feel this program is a light at the end of a dark tunnel," Buckhalton said. "We need more groups like this to save girls' lives."