Kelly Cruse is the new Executive Director of New Friends New Life (NFNL). Since 2012, she has helped usher its reach and impact to new heights, transforming the lives of hundreds of formerly trafficked and exploited women, teens, and children.
In 2014, Model Behaviors collaborated with NFNL to help organize a market focus group and develop a campaign to better understand the perception of human trafficking in boys and young men and to educate them on their impact. Led by the Men’s Advocacy Group, The manKINDness Project teaches high school male athletes the power of language when it comes to talking about girls and women. It also gives them the opportunity to take ownership of individual and community solutions regarding exploitation. We’re so excited about the amazing results this program has garnered so far. We love NFNL, and we will continue to support and follow them as they introduce new initiatives and perform groundbreaking work in our community and in the world of human trafficking.
We left off the first part of our interview with Kelly sharing why she’s so driven and so passionate about being part of NFNL. If you haven’t had a chance, be sure you read through Part I. In Part II, we delve into the more personal side of things—Kelly’s childhood in Texas, the work she did leading up to NFNL, and the recent loss of her beloved sister, Traci. Plus, Kelly shares some of her favorite advice and life lessons.
MB: Let’s start from the beginning…
KC: I grew up in Houston and in the Mid-Cities.
MB: Were you an only child?
KC: There were three girls. I was the youngest. You know, this was something that I was going to mention later…my middle sister died in August.
MB: Oh, I’m so sorry.
KC: We functioned like twins. We were super close. My oldest sister, we are close but there was such an age gap. We didn’t have as many shared environments, but I have a very supportive family. I have four nieces and two nephews. My parents are still living.
MB: Do you think having two sisters growing up influenced your interest in women’s studies?
KC: It was more the way we were raised. We were raised that we could do anything, but I noticed out in the world that this was not what other people thought. I saw the juxtaposition of it.
MB: That totally makes sense to me because that was my experience as well.
KC: Yes, definitely. So I grew up here, and I worked at Southwest Airlines for quite a while. I lived in DC, and Salt Lake City, and Phoenix…and LA for another company. And then I ended up back in Dallas.
MB: Were you a flight attendant?
KC: I was not. I worked in Southwest’s people department, which is human resources. That was part of the dovetail of the job here because NFNL needed someone who knew HR to help build our Second Chance Jobs program. I started working for Southwest here in Dallas. Then they bought another airline up in the Northwest, so I went to Salt Lake City and helped with the employee transition. I moved to Phoenix in their marketing department and to Washington, DC, when they opened a lobby office. I was a lobbyist for them for about four and a half years, working on federal, state, and local issues.
MB: It sounds like a lot of your experience was varied and diverse but ended up being perfect preparation for what you do now. It’s kind of funny that you worked with an airline for so long because our last Woman of the Month, Yvonne Crum, was a flight attendant for years and years.
KC: Oh really?
MB: Y’all have a little connection. So I wanted to ask…what are your passions, your hobbies, and your interests outside of NFNL.
KC: I love traveling. I love volunteering for The Marcella Project. I’m an avid yogi. I do yoga weekly. Movies and intellectual conversations with friends. My relationships are very important to me—my friends and family.
MB: I’m sure your work with NFNL can be hard sometimes, emotionally speaking, so how do your relationships play into that? Are they a way for you to do self-care?
KC: They are. And I try not to talk about work a lot because I know it’s heavy and can feel that way for other people. At NFNL, we talk a lot about “trauma stewardship,” which means we’re hearing the stories and trying to help but we’re not internalizing them. And it’s still…it does affect you over time for sure. But I have fun and exercise and get enough sleep. I especially try to focus on the hard work that our members do when they change their lives instead of focusing on the fact that our community and nation do have this problem.
MB: Sometimes it’s just a matter of what we choose to focus on. That could really be important with work like this. You mentioned not internalizing the stories. Does it take time to develop that skill?
KC: It does. But just learning about it and talking about it right off helps. We debrief here sometimes when there’s something we experience or learn that’s particularly difficult. We’ll debrief with another colleague.
MB: Does NFNL have any official guidelines for employees to help them with that?
KC: Yes, for example, we have a culture team. It’s made up of some employees who volunteer to help build and promote a healthy culture. One thing they just did was a book club around Trauma Stewardship by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky. We also offer comp time here, so people don’t get burned out. They can get rejuvenated. We have flex hours. We do a lot to try to fuel people because we know it can be tough.
MB: Has there ever been a time when you felt like someone was getting burnt out and you had to talk with them and say, “Hey, I think maybe you should take a step back.” Has anything like that ever happened? Or has someone said that to you?
KC: Oh yes! We all say it to each other. “Maybe you need to go home now?” There’s always the employee that works really late at night.
MB: Sometimes it’s hard to step away.
KC: It is! It can be, especially depending on the different personalities and work styles.
MB: Some people, it’s not even a matter of what they’re working on. They get in a zone and they’re like, “Gotta keep going! Gotta keep going!”
KC: And they look up and it’s 7:30 and they’re still sitting there.
MB: So you said you like to travel, and I love travel stories. Do you have any fun ones? Or any place that stands out to you?
KC: I can answer in two ways. Italy is my number-one place to go. However, a place that stood out was a mission trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is known as the rape capital of the world.
MB: I didn’t know that.
KC: I was afraid to go, but I said I’ll go if I can do something around domestic violence. That’s when I worked for a domestic violence agency and was able to do some trauma recovery workshops, for men and women. Working with the men was really fascinating because everyone over there has witnessed or experienced some kind of violence and may have symptoms of PTSD. It’s just so violent. That whole experience was life changing, in that they have so much less than we have, so much less, and their hope was so great. They lived out their faith and their lives differently, which was inspiring. The only difference between them and us is where they are born and where we’re born. And no one gets to choose that.
MB: I can’t even imagine how that could affect you.
KC: Yeah, I came home after eleven days and went to Starbucks, and you know, the women over there can’t do that. It’s dangerous for them to even get water or walk outside to the restroom. It was a different level of oppression than I had ever seen before.
MB: Yeah, wow. *lets out a deep breath*
KC: Sorry, you’re probably going to need to debrief. A tip from our clinical director is to just picture those words on a cloud and let ’em go by. Don’t internalize them.
MB: That’s a good tip! So what about the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the years? I love when people share their advice.
KC: There are so many lessons we all learn, but for me, it’s the importance of empathy. And what I mean by that—I looked up the definition to read. Empathy is “the ability to share and understand the feelings of another.” I was in a psychology class. The professor asked people to raise their hands on what they felt the leading cause of divorce was. You heard things like finances, children, sex, or whatever. And the professor said no—it’s lack of empathy for your partner. When we have empathy for each other, it’s a reciprocal relationship of kindness.
Can you imagine what it would be like if we learned empathy, if it was in our schools? One of the professors there brought that up—if we taught what it meant to be empathetic. We see that, too. For example, just like the myths with our issue, which we talked about in Part I. People think that women choose to be prostituted. Once people learn the truth, about how they don’t get there on their own, that it comes from abuse, they’re able to feel empathetic. Then they’re inspired to do something about it because their thought process has changed.
It’s the same thing we’re doing with the boys in school participating in The manKINDness Project. It’s developing some space and some language for people to understand, then to tap into empathy.
MB: Now more than ever, that quality is so important. It’s something we’re never taught in any sort of formal setting. Maybe, if we’re lucky and we have a great English teacher, we’ll learn it through literature. But mostly, we just kind of have to discover it for ourselves. Some people are given a lot more opportunity to learn that skill than others. So yeah…I love that.
KC: Sometimes we don’t get it from the homes we grow up in.
MB: Exactly. I’m not sure if that ties into my next question, but maybe it does. What do you think female strength looks like? And let me say up front, I have a hard time with the word strength because a lot of times people might automatically equate it to bodily strength, but I’m curious to know what you think female strength is.
KC: Strength in general is individual. Sometimes we’re born with some strength, and then sometimes our life experiences build our muscles—I’m talking about our emotional and intellectual muscles. The pressures men have are different than the pressures women have. I think women have to be strong in a different way. We are more marginalized in society, globally and in the US. Sometimes we have to fight harder in a different way, like harder for pay and recognition.
Also, as a society, we put women in a box and we put men in a box. We don’t allow our men to feel. Sometimes women can be stronger because we are allowed to feel.
MB: That’s what’s so exciting to me about The manKINDness Project because, like you said, it’s giving those boys tools to talk and express and understand.
KC: It’s not telling them what not to do. It’s inspiring them about what to do. It’s guiding them on what to do, and they’re integral in developing it too. It’s powerful when people are offered choices.
MB: That is one of the biggest things I’ve learned, even with something like community management. Give them the power to make choices and make their own decisions and create their own systems. People will take a lot more ownership of it.
Okay, shifting gears a bit. I love talking about female friendship. To me, it’s so important to my life. I wouldn’t get through a lot of things without my girls. Has there ever been a time in your life when your friends really came through for you?
KC: Like you, I’m a girl’s girl. I have to have my girlfriends and I’ve been blessed with some really good friendships. I mentioned to you that my sister Traci died in August. She’d had an almost five-year battle with cancer. In July she became paralyzed, and my girlfriends—some of them were on trips across the United States—cut their trips short. I would’ve never asked someone to leave a vacation, but that’s what they were compelled to do. Others who lived out of state flew in just to be present. I didn’t realize how much I needed it, but they were here.
Although Traci was in the hospital, we had to have a friend or family member with her 24/7. I created a care calendar, yet didn’t know what people would be able to do. The night shifts went first. People picked those up, which I thought would be the hardest ones to cover. And then every shift was covered. It was tremendous for me to see that kind of outpouring, people who just knew how to show up.
I have to say, the men showed up too. Traci was single. I’m single. We used to share a design company together, and we have a lot of the same friends. We kind of ran around in the same posse together. It was incredible to see the men show up. It goes back to where my heart is. I feel like men and women are supposed to support one another. The men even signed up for the night shifts. It was a beautiful act of love and kindness.
MB: That’s amazing. It says a lot about both of you that you have friends like that. People who would drop everything, without you even asking, and just show up.
KC: We’ve been blessed. And I don’t believe it was anything we had done, but it was incredible. It’s like people who know what you need when you don’t even know what you need yourself. And then they do it! So there was some sweetness in all of the sadness.
MB: I love that. That’s beautiful. And I’m so sorry for your sister passing. August wasn’t that long ago so I’m sure it’s still tough.
KC: It has its moments. But thank you for that.
MB: So what advice do you have for any woman who’s facing a difficult time in her life?
KC: It’s okay to need help. It’s okay to ask for it. I would say essential to ask for it. I believe God works in our lives through other people. Reach out for wise people who will listen and help you move to the next step. We have a community full of resources. Reach out for what you need.
MB: That was one of the things that caught my ear when you were talking about your sister. You said you would’ve never asked anyone to do drop everything and help, and I think a lot of times—whether it’s that kind of situation or with our career or even if we’re just facing a tough decision—we hesitate to reach out because we feel like we might be bothering someone or they might look at us a different way. It’s so good to keep that advice in mind, that it’s okay to ask for help. It’s almost like an act of bravery to show your vulnerability like that.
KC: You do have to be brave when you ask for help! We feel like we have to be self-sufficient, right? I also believe that we—human beings—run across these points in our lives where we have to reinvent ourselves. It could be when something doesn’t work out in our life that we thought would, or it could be a normal life transition—empty nesting, or graduating from college and not knowing what to do next, or moving to another city—and we have to reinvent how we look at things and how we look at ourselves and what we decide to do next. Life doesn’t happen as we plan, as we all know, but it’s good to go through that inventory process.
Thank you so much to Kelly Cruse for spending so much time with us and sharing a little piece of her life and a little piece of her heart. Read Part I of her interview, and check back soon to take a peek at a day in her life as the Executive Director of New Friends New Life.