Nonprofit Spotlight: Nicole Fabiano Oertel on Stomping Out Commercial Sexual Exploitation | Chicago North Shore Moms

Local mom Nicole Fabiano Oertel of The Oertel Group speaks about Stepping Stones Network, a local nonprofit working to stomp out commercial sexual exploitation while also providing a safe home for local women and children who have been trafficked. This is an important read, please spread the word.


I am Nicole Fabiano Oertel, I grew up in a small town in Michigan. Lived in South Florida for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2009 and soon to settle in Lake Forest this summer! My husband and I have a real estate team @theoertelgroup that serves the city & North Shore.


Today I’m bringing awareness to Stepping Stones Network, an organization that is really important to me and that I’ve been volunteering with for this past year. I am on their executive Development committee and assist them with growing their organization so that we can continue to help women and their children who have survived after being a victim of sex trafficking.



How long has Stepping Stones Network been established?

Stepping Stones Network did its public launch in October 2014.



What is the mission of Stepping Stones Network?

To educate and engage the community to prevent domestic commercial sexual exploitation and to provide comprehensive, restorative care to survivors.



Who does Stepping Stones Network serve?

Our first residential recovery home will open July 8, 2019. It will be a 12-18 month program that will provide a safe home and bring healing to women and their pre-pubescent children who have been victims of sex trafficking. Our program will be holistic and help both the mother and their children recover and rebuild their lives. Other programs are designed to assist women only and are not equipped to take a mom with their children. These mothers either have to give up their children for at least a year, or forego the help. Most moms don’t want to give up their children, so this becomes a barrier to them getting help. Also, children of these moms are at incredibly high risk for being sold to. So, our program not only heals, but protects. We believe we may be the first in the country with this kind of program.


To give readers an idea of the need: In Chicagoland alone, there are an estimated 16-25,000 women and girls being illegally trafficked and sold for sex every year. Up to 70% of these women may have children. Their loneliness, their love for their children and desperation to provide for them may have made them vulnerable to the manipulation and exploitation of traffickers.



What was the inspiration behind the formation of this Stepping Stones Network?

The formation of Stepping Stones goes back to April 2011 when a group of concerned individuals in the northern suburbs of Chicago came together to discuss what could be done to address the growing problem of commercial sexual exploitation in the Chicago area. As they investigated, they became increasingly aware of two disturbing facts. One is the prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. The other is the lack of trauma recovery services, housing and employment alternatives for those who have been victimized by this modern day form of slavery. In 2014, we clarified our mission, vision and goals and became Stepping Stones Network.



Are you personally connected to this nonprofit and if so how/why is Stepping Stones Network’s mission important to you? 

As a mother I can’t think of any other mission that is more important to support and raise awareness about. Most of us think that human and sex trafficking are something that only happen in other countries, let alone right here in Chicago & surrounding suburbs. Knowing that young children, some sold into slavery by their own parents or kidnapped by traffickers are being sold and abused is beyond something I want to comprehend — but is a reality right here in our own backyard. Stories about young girls in affluent neighborhoods running away due to the pressures of school, social media and just living in today’s stressful society and finding themselves in the hands of a trafficker are enough for me to want to do everything I can to help stop this. These traffickers prey on our children at their most vulnerable moments, many times approaching them on social media outlets and then blackmailing them into selling their bodies and making it almost impossible to escape. I can’t help but want to make sure every mother and human out there understand how serious this is and that we need to do what we can to prevent this, as well as help those who have survived this horrific situation.



What’s on the horizon for Stepping Stones Network?

We open our first home in July which is located in Lake County and we have just hired our first employees after being 100% volunteers. Our hope is to expand to be able to serve more survivors, as well as add a second short-term program of approximately 30-90 days.



Who would you like to thank for making the formation of this non-profit possible and why?

All of our volunteers are unbelievably generous with their time and we could not have done this without each and every single one of them. It truly takes a village and we have been very fortunate to have these individuals who have put it many hours, days and even years to get to where we are. Opening our doors this July is beyond humbling and exciting for everyone involved.


Suzanne Baker Brown is the Executive Director of Stepping Stones Network. Her passion is to help people find whole life health (body, soul and spirit), so they can step into the life they were created to live is unbelievable and exactly what our survivors and this organization needs to succeed. Suzanne’s background includes corporate leadership, management consulting, not-for-profit board experience, and extensive work in women’s ministry since 2000. She has been an advocate for women and women’s issues in all of these contexts.



What message or call to action do you want to convey to readers? 

In honor of Mother’s Day, please consider a donation to our Mother’s Day Crowdfund opening TODAY, May 8, 2019, by visiting



The doors to our first safe home are opening July 8, 2019 and in addition to the donations we have received to help open and run the home, we need to raise an additional $30,000 to help support the children that will be coming with their moms. We need support for practical and developmental needs, childcare, and specialized medical and emotional support. Both mom and child will be coming to us just after leaving or barely escaping their trafficker so the emotional and physical needs they both will need is a lot. Every one of these women and their precious children deserve a second chance at life. They deserve a home with a clean bed, food in the pantry, roof over their head and most of all to feel safe and loved. Things that most of us all wake up with every morning and don’t even think about, but to our survivors and their children these are things they likely never had.

If you have any questions, contact @nicole_fabiano_oertel or email [email protected]


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