Like many LSA students, Katie Sauter headed to Cancun, Mexico when the calendar flipped to spring.

But instead of beaches, beer, and bacchanalia, Sauter volunteered at a shelter for survivors of domestic abuse and human trafficking.

Sauter, a senior majoring in political science and women’s studies, spent three weeks in May at the Centro Integral de Atención a la Mujer (or CIAM, translated as the Comprehensive Care Center for Women) in Cancun, Mexico.

“I had heard of (shelter founder) Lydia Cacho through one of my women’s studies classes,” Sauter says. “She’s done some amazing work on violence against women.”

During her sophomore year, she decided to apply after meeting two students planning a trip. She was accepted, but it took most of her junior year to get approval from U-M and funding in the form of a grant from LSA’s Barger Leadership Institute.

Sauter, along with alumni Gerardo Villarreal (U-M ’11), Lexie Tourek (’12), and Monica Cole (’11), spent the first two weeks offsite learning how the shelter operates and attending the same classes and training as the women living there.

During the third week, Sauter and the others worked with the six women living at the shelter. Surrounded by armed guards, the shelter can hold up to 20 women, but a lack of funding makes it difficult to operate at full capacity.

Volunteers at the Comprehensive Care Center for Women (CIAM) gather together on their final day working at the shelter. 
Photo courtesy of Katie Sauter

She heard stories of violence, abuse, control—of how women get ensnared in bad relationships and become victims. The women are required to stay at the shelter until they complete a three- to four-month program of education and treatment. But even inside the shelter in a treatment program, the danger is still very real for these women. Every day, to avoid revealing the shelter’s location to unwanted visitors, Sauter and the others took a taxi to a spot a few blocks away, got out, waited for the taxi to drive off, and then walked the remaining distance.

Sauter and her U-M partners worked with the women in the shelter’s garden and library. They did translation work on the shelter’s grant applications, and tutored some of the survivors who are still in school. Sauter, who took French in high school and joked before the trip that she wouldn’t be much help in Mexico, was able to help one of the women who was studying French.

“The women in the shelter in Mexico were so positive,” she says. “[They were] so grateful and gracious to us. I was really shocked by that mentality.”

Sauter also spent some of her time at CIAM discussing how to keep the relationship with U-M students going past her visit. The U-M group and the CIAM staff came up with a name—CIAM Cancun Partnership—and agreed to take future trips to Cancun and to host fundraising events at U-M for the shelter.

As part of the partnership agreement, Sauter aims to raise awareness among the U-M community about human trafficking and domestic violence, and how to combat it. She says the group would like to bring Cacho to U-M to speak, and host a screening of documentaries on human trafficking. She would also like to explore co-hosting an event with the Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic and, of course, plan future trips back to CIAM.

“Getting funding is obviously a huge obstacle,” she says. “It’s also difficult to find students who can take three weeks off of school to go do something they’re not getting credit for.”

Katie Sauter (second from right) joins CIAM staff for a workshop on identity and privilege.
Photo courtesy of Katie Sauter

Sauter, who volunteers at a Washtenaw County women’s shelter, says she became interested in violence against women issues in high school. When she came to LSA and began taking classes, she learned about human trafficking.

“After I went to Cancun I realized I was interested in the organization of shelters and the different ways organizations across the country and around the globe run their shelters,” she says. “It’s just a passion that has continued to grow through this experience.”

Sauter plans to get her masters in public policy and work on violence against women issues. She says she would like to travel around the world visiting different women’s shelters to see what works best and maybe one day open her own women’s facility.

Until then, she will reflect on her time in Cancun and work to get back there this coming year.

“This was honestly a humbling experience to see what these women have gone through and what they’re able to make of their situations,” she says. “It was not just us helping them; it was really a two-way street. I learned so much from the survivors.

“I don’t think you could do down there and not want to continue the work,” she says.