Human trafficking is a world-wide problem that has existed since the dawn of civilization. But as long as it has existed, we have had people pushing back against it, and protecting its survivors and victims. In this episode, Pamela Wirth talks to Tina Chen and Sue Chen, two sisters with advocacies to make the world a better place. Tina is the Donor Relations Coordinator at El Pozo de Vida, an NGO that helps survivors of human trafficking live better lives. Sue is a food advocate, founder and CEO of Nova Medical Products. Join them as they talk about love, acceptance and grace, helping victims of modern-day slavery, and sustainable farming.
In this episode, I have Sue Chen, who is the Founder of NOVA Medical Products and a fantastic hazelnut farmer in Oregon and then her sister, Tina Chen, who is a healthcare professional living in Mexico and serving an incredible population. Thank you both for being here.
It’s our pleasure.
Sue, I’ll start with you because you and I have known each other longer. I met you through a group called YPO with some incredible people that we've been blessed to be able to work with, communicate with, and support each other. Tell us a little bit about how you got into NOVA medical products, health and wellness, and your mentors. Walk us through that journey.
I have to say how especially wonderful it is to be doing this episode with my dear sister. The beginning of the journey is a journey we've shared. We're five years apart. Our father was a rehab doctor. He cared for the well-being but also the rehabilitation of his patients, who he found the most courageous people in the world that had inspired him. Sadly, he passed away from a long battle with cancer when I was 14 and Tina was 9 but both of us have been able to carry on my father's dream and his passion of caring for people, enabling and allowing them to be the best they can be.
The origin of NOVA is my father. He wanted to make better products for his patients, especially when he had his time at the VA. He felt like there were better products out there to allow them to live courageously and with the most ability. Tina shared his passion. Even though she was so young when he passed away, I feel that she inherited his spirit for caring for people as a healthcare professional but also in her life. We didn't have a relationship with our father as adults, but I feel that we were able to carry on his dream.
Tina, how about you?
I would beg to differ a bit because his legacy is carried on through her work ethic. She runs a company that makes medical products but they don't just make medical products. He was concerned with providing but she took it to another level and made it so that people could be proud of the medical products that they were using. Instead of feeling disabled, they felt enabled and wanted to show off their new walker. She pretty much is the one that brought beauty and color to the industry of medical products.
It is one of the boring and was one of the ugliest industries in terms of having a cane or walker that was silver and plastic. It didn't make anyone feel happy about using it but she single-handedly took it to the next level and the industry has changed. That was a secret dream of his but he probably didn't even know that it could have happened in his lifetime. Every time I see a NOVA walker, I'm like, “Oh my gosh.” I'm also proud of other brands too, because who needs a walker but doesn't need a seat? The heart and innovation of NOVA were to make a rolling walker that has seat on it. Someone could have more freedom to not be so scared because they can sit up.
We are incredible miracles in terms of our body, mind and spirit. Those three things play a part in our rehabilitation process physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. It's all connected.
Everything that Sue said, my heart was with rehabilitation. I thought, “Maybe I could be a doctor,” but after seeing how competitive it was, I thought maybe physical therapy is the way to go for me because I can spend more time but seeing a person devastated by physical injury, whether it's physiological or mental like a neurological injury, being able to come alongside and walk with them through the process but also give them hope in that process that they might not be able to get to 100% but adjusting to the new normal, celebrating the small wins, being able to be happy being alive instead of in another state, being able to carry that hope that we are, as human beings, incredible miracles in terms of our body, mind and spirit and all those three things play a part in our rehabilitation process physically but also emotionally and spiritually is all connected.
I didn't say goodbye to my physical therapy career, which I love but I welcomed a new aspect of working with trauma victims, being in an environment where there are survivors of human trafficking at 9, 10, 12 or 15 years old and suffering physical trauma but so much of their soul. Spirit is fractured for all that they endured and then being able to witness the healing process, the recovery process step-by-step and how I can play a small role in that in terms of the body.
Also, witnessing how a mind able to go back to normal living and what does it mean to be successful as a survivor of human trafficking. There are so many ways to look at that but it's been a dream come true to live in Mexico City and work with this amazing organization, El Pozo De Vida and come alongside and see these girls blossom. They take a step back and take a step forward. It’s like a reflection of ourselves.
Tina, based on your work and so much of what you're seeing, when you come into contact with these children, what ages are they mostly?
There are mostly between 13, 16 or 17.
Those are very difficult ages to begin with. There's a ton of mental anguish and work that needs to be done. Physically, how are you working with them? Do you find that certain things help them through anxiety, depression, hormones and everything else that's going on?
There are so many things but it's the consistency of presence. You have to be consistently present and giving love. Sometimes, that love comes in boundaries and sometimes in consequences like natural consequences or consequences of a safe house. If rules are broken, they have consequences but it's a consistency of a healthy love, whereas their reality has been unhealthy, which has been conditional or manipulative. As the teenage mind is growing, their values are, “Your body is only good for this. My love for you is only conditional. You can do these things for me.” A lot of the girls come and their traffickers are either their family members or boyfriend. That ruins their idea and concept of a loving relationship. They’re like, “What is that like?”
My husband and I always joke that we only have to be normal human beings at the safe house because that's what they need. They need to see a normal person being in a loving relationship with them or each other. I'm not a trained professional so we have trained professionals for therapy, psychology and spiritual healing because a lot of them have spiritual abuse and trauma dedicated to demons, death saints and other dark things. We have to address that aspect. We’re allowing them to be teenagers by playing, enjoying, fighting, hormones and everything. We’re allowing that to take place and then having the people that come alongside, as a team, we work together.
The spiritual component is the most important to maintain the atmosphere of the house. People can say it's the universe. We're not a religious organization but our founders are pastors. You have to have a fountain where you can receive strength when you're looking at things that are so dark. What they've been through is unbelievable. A lot of people might think, “How could God allow that to happen?” Evil exists in the world, so taking them through the journey knowing that they're loved and their value is outside of whatever has happened to them or whatever choices they make, successes or failures, their value remains the same. It's loved. That's what we're trying to build up.
In that, talk to me a little bit about how you're feeding them or what kind of nutrition you do.
There is an organization called All Care. They feed the world in different projects and we're one of their projects. They fund all of our nutritional needs for the safe house. Mexico is a plethora of fresh everything. Everything comes from markets on the street. Some girls have never had a salad, so we teach them how to prepare food but we also look at the nutrition of what they're eating, their diet and making sure that everything stays healthy and that they're having balanced food. Some people are in charge of that.
Sue, with your farm in Oregon, tell us a little bit about how you're coming with clean eating and some of the activities that you're doing in sustainability and your goals going forward.
In this journey of being a farmer, I've learned so much about food, growing food, our relationship with food and also being stewards of the soil. I think about the word sustainability and it's not enough. To sustain ourselves and the planet, it's not good enough. We need to cultivate, encourage and bring courage to how we eat and steward the soil. They all come together.
When I think about conventional farming and what we're doing to food, we're creating a lot of poison in our foods. Also, how we process foods and people's relationship with food has gotten distorted. It leads to so many issues that we have with people's health but if you break it down and understand the miracle, it is to put a seed in the ground and that 1 seed can produce 100 pounds of beautiful squashes. That food nourishes you.
Everything we grow is there to heal us, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
I believe that everything we grow is there to heal us mentally, physically and spiritually but what it comes down to is you've got to take care of the land. If we take care of the land, the land will take care of us. It has been quite an introspective but also visionary quest in thinking about food, health and wellbeing.
My family on both sides are farmers. Somehow, my parent's generation didn't embrace any of that. I would never know how to live off the land if I had to, which is frankly, scary. What do you suggest for people that do want to learn more about how they can learn about making food and taking care of themselves?
It’s such a fun journey. Cooking together as a family, going to the farmer's market and meeting the farmer that grows the lettuce, raises the cows and has the chickens is an easy, fun and powerful step in having a healthy living. There was a time that we all grew our food. It's not easy to do. It's a lot of work. Not everyone can do it, but we can still cook together and have an understanding of where our food comes from. When I talk about having a healthy relationship with food, that's what I mean.
I feel like in the last couple of years, we become a culture that can have a whole meal out of a box like cereal boxes and processed food. Constantly, you have all of your nutrition and calories that come from things that are not normal. I feel like that has perpetuated a lot of serious health issues that affect everyone.
In addition to going into farmer's markets and cooking together, do you have any other suggestions on any websites or anything, in particular, you would suggest for folks that want to learn more about clean eating or things that they could do for their families?
You can go on YouTube. There are hundreds of podcasts and YouTube channels out there that can teach you anywhere you are to grow whatever you want if you want to. If you live on a balcony and you want to grow cucumbers, there are videos out there to show you how to grow that. If you have any interest in growing your food, no matter where you are, there's tons of information out there.
I have podcasts and series that I love but they're out there. It's fun, especially if you've got kids to grow something that you're going to eat. There's something that happens with kids that when they grow something. They probably are going to like it. They're not going to be disgusted with something that they grew themselves. I would say go on YouTube and type, “I want to grow this. I live here,” and boom, there'll be 100 videos.
Tina, I spent many years in hospitality and kept very vigilant watch because human trafficking is such a problem everywhere. It's not a regional or national thing. It's everywhere. What suggestions do you have for people to help keep an eye out to recognize? Even beyond human trafficking, if there are large, emotional challenges that you're starting to see in people, are there any suggestions you may have?
In general, it's important to talk about online safety because it is a way that a lot of people get trafficked. It's the fishing, the free trip and the getting to know someone that you don't know online and they're saying all the right things. It’s talking about online safety in the home and with your kids. Also, the concept of if it's too good to be true, then it might not be.
A lot of our girls were offered modeling gigs. They were so flattered and so excited but it turned into something different. It’s teaching our kids to be aware, be open and have conversations with others about what's going on so that someone can say, “Let's check that out.” Have an open dialogue about what are some of the risk factors on how someone gets hooked.
Usually, the relationship seems so good and then suddenly, there's a request of dancing at a strip club. The perpetrators are like, “You want to be a model, and so what's the difference between dancing at the beach with your bathing suit and dancing at a club with very little clothes on? If this is what you want, then you should need to be brave and go for it.”
It's taking truthful things and manipulating them where someone's uncomfortable doing that. It's taking one step at a time to groom them to be something else. Have conversations about valuing our bodies, how the value that we have is more than just our body and what we're wearing but having a healthy body balance is important.
In terms of trauma, our job isn't to police or change anyone but it is to love, forgive, give grace to each other and live that way. A lot of times, the girls have a hard time forgiving their perpetrators. It's like, “Why would they need to forgive them after what they've done?” A lot of times, it's to set themselves free, not for that other person. Sometimes, we have a male stand in the gap. My husband or our founder stands in the gap and says, “I want to ask forgiveness for men,” so that they have a memory of that they can move forward. They don't have to hold onto all the negative but can focus on the positive from the people that do care. Those are the main takeaways.
I appreciate both of you. Sue, I've purchased one of the walkers for my grandma. She loves that thing. It's a bright red and a little racy. She's super petite. She's 4’8” but swears she's 5’2”. She can get around and loves it. Thank you so much for everything you're doing. I can't wait to see where all of your farming is going because I know that you're not anywhere near done. If people want to find out more about you and what you do, which website should they visit?
Our job isn't to police or to change anyone. Our job is to love and forgive and give grace to each other.
With Nova, NOVAJoy.com is a good place. Also, we have our YouTube channel. It’s NOVA Medical Products. Search that for the medical side. There, I've got hundreds of videos. I love showing people the cool walkers for their grandma because the perception is it’s a sad product and I want to take all that denial out of the feeling of using medical equipment, so I make my videos fun and educational. On the farming side, my hazelnut farm is LoveHazelnuts.com. I believe hazelnuts are America's best nuts. That's a great place to learn about hazelnuts. Hazelnuts are especially a healthy food because it's so good for you and the planet.
Tina, where do we learn more about you and everything that you're doing?
The organization that I work with is called El Pozo De Vida. It's called The Well of Life but in Spanish. ElPozoDeVida.org.mx is our website. It is in Spanish and English. You can look at projects. It's a holistic approach to human trafficking. I'm on social media as @TinaChenPT. I post about our life here in Mexico and how much we love it. We wouldn't change anything. We love our life here so much. This culture is incredible and the people here are unparallel. We love it here. That’s a mix of our activities.
Thank you both so much. You both are fantastic mentors to everyone else that's reading. You’re such an inspiration to me and others.
Thank you for having us.
I am from Los Angeles and for the last six years, I have been living in Mexico City. Here, I work for an anti-human trafficking organization called El Pozo de Vida.
I worked as a physical therapist for twenty years. During my practice in neurological rehabilitation, I witnessed the power of the brain to reconnect with the body given the right input.
Currently I work as head of donor relations at El Pozo de Vida. Working with victims of human trafficking, it’s a joy to see the recovery process of each survivor. I am passionate about a holistic approach to healing the body, soul and spirit which is are so interconnected.
Sue Chen founded NOVA Medical Products in 1993 when she was just 23 years old with a strong vision – improve lives…with style. Today, NOVA has grown to become an industry leader and innovator of over 820 health care and wellness products in Mobility, Bathroom, Cushions and Independent Living Products. NOVA is on a mission to unleash the power and potential in millions of physically challenged people. NOVA is the proud - Brand of the Independents – partnering with over 6,000 small business medical stores and pharmacies, and not with Walmart, big pharmacy chains or Amazon.
Sue was named one of the ten Most Powerful Entrepreneurs in Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women issue and named on the Forty over 40 list of women who are reinventing, disrupting and making an impact. In 2011, Sue helped successfully lobby the California legislature to protect sharks with the passing of the Shark Fin ban and presented a TEDx talk titled, “Sharks saved my life … what will save yours.” Most recently, Sue was name the South Bay Woman of the Year for Social Consciousness.
Sue is also the co-founder of Operation Blue Pride and Executive Producer of the Operation Blue Pride documentary, Director of Reef Check Foundation and Shark Savers, Community Champion for the Annenberg Foundation and a member and past Chapter President of YPO (Young Presidents Organization). Sue believes in Happy Chaos - a happily un-balanced and chaotic life. Her Happy Chaos includes being a shark advocate, avid diver, mentor, educator, organic hazelnut farmer, classical music junkie and writer.