The night Coco Berthmann decided to escape the home where she had been abused and raped for 15 years, she turned to a Celine Dion song for hope.
She remembers sneaking from her bedroom at 3:30 a.m., tiptoeing down a spiral staircase, stealing money for a train ride across the country and grabbing her backpack and a cigarette.
“It feels like yesterday,” Berthmann said. “I went to the door, put in my iPod, put on ‘Taking Chances’ by Celine Dion. Then I just ran. I couldn’t feel my legs, I just felt the cold air and the music and I got to the bus station.”
She shared her story on Friday in the afternoon sunlight at Brooker’s Founding Flavors Ice Cream in Vineyard, far away from Germany, where she had been a victim of child sex trafficking.
Shop owner Jamie Brooker said she started sobbing when she first heard Berthmann’s story. She shared the story with her teenager daughters who decided they wanted buy Celine Dion concert tickets to give to Berthmann.
“We heard about her anniversary of escaping so we all got together and earned money,” said 14-year-old Lucy Brooker.
She and nearly a dozen of her friends decided to babysit for neighbors, mow lawns, clean homes, clean window wells, complete odd jobs and work at the Brooker’s Founding Flavors Ice Cream to collect $800 for the concert tickets.
“That was all in one night, we just decided, let’s do this,” said 14-year-old Alta Mitchell. “I’ve never raised money for a cause like that before. It was cool to say I’ve done that and I’m thinking what else can I do.”
Although they had never met Berthmann, the girls presented the concert tickets to her at her fundraiser earlier this month.
“I personally couldn’t stop crying. I knew for Coco who has been through so much it was such a good cause,” said 15-year-old Nataleigh Rasmussen. “It was so fun to bond with my friends and be a part of something more than myself, to actually be able to help in the world.”
Taylor and Sydney Hall, both 14, said raising money for the tickets helped them see human trafficking as an actual problem, not something in a movie.
“Before I knew about Coco, I didn’t even know these things still happened,” Taylor Hall said. “It just seems so far away but when we heard about Coco, we were like, whoa, this is actually happening, this is real.”
“It was a really, really cool experience for me,” Sydney Hall added.
Berthmann said she knew the girls were planning something, but she had expected a necklace or a dress. Two tickets to a Celine Dion concert in Salt Lake City in March 2020 blew her away.
“The tickets are amazing, but the actual gift behind it of having those girls who were my age when I escaped, the love behind it, I’ve never felt more love than in that moment,” she said.
Her fundraiser collected more than $7,500 for Dahlia’s Hope, a nonprofit created to provide resources for victims of human trafficking who escape.
Since her childhood, Berthmann’s mother allowed paying strangers to sexually assault and abuse Berthmann and her two older sisters. The family lived in a neighborhood where Berthmann could attend an elementary school, take dance lessons and access the internet and television.
But Berthmann remembers she was also raped or abused inside her home, sometimes 10 to 50 times a day. She remembers her mother taking her to parties where strangers would gang rape her and other children.
“When you’re born into such an abusive situation, you don’t know what’s happening to you is wrong,” Berthmann said.
She was 4 or 5 years old when she first heard a song by Celine Dion. With her old sister, Berthmann wrote letters to the Canadian singer and created an imaginary world where Dion became her mother.
“Every time something bad would happen, we would tell her in our minds and she would give us hugs and tuck us in and sing us lullabies,” Berthmann said. “I know it sounds so cheesy but honestly it was her and my sister who raised me.”
She was 12 years old when her older sister was stabbed to death in front of her. That was the push Berthmann needed to leave.
“When my sister was murdered and I saw her murdered, I just kept thinking, ‘Celine would just hold me right now’ and it would be okay,” she said.
For three years, Berthmann planned her escape. She found a children’s clinic across Germany where she could hide and mapped the costs for a bus ride and train ride.
“I remember one day in particular when I was raped over and over and over again and that image of (Celine) giving me a hug kept me holding on,” she said.
On Nov. 2, 2009, Berthmann ran away to the sound of Celine Dion. She threw away her cellphone and arrived at the clinic bruised and malnourished but alive.
After recovering in the hospital for six months, she moved into her own apartment and started high school. She testified in court against her stepfather.
She started meeting with a therapist to heal from her mother’s abuse and the trauma from trafficking. But the therapist became another abuser who locked her in the basement of his home for weeks and months at a time.
“He kept saying nobody is coming for you, nobody is looking for you, you’re down here and nobody cares. You start believing it because the only one who cares is him,” she said.
After two years of abuse, Berthmann attempted suicide in a nearby forest. A stranger found her unconscious and brought her to the hospital where she stayed in a coma for a week.
“I was so angry at life, at Celine Dion, and everybody. How dare you sing about love? It doesn’t exist,” she said.
The hospital staff learned she used to listen to Celine Dion music and bought her a recently released album. But Berthmann refused to listen — until she heard the song “Loved Me Back to Life.”
“It just switched something inside me,” she said. “And I yelled at the doctors, ‘I need the police here right away.’”
Having escaped again, Berthmann finished high school at age 21 and joined an au pair agency to move to the United States. In February 2017, she ended up in Utah.
Now, 10 years after escaping her mother’s home, Berthmann lives in Utah County and studies at the LDS Business College in Salt Lake City. She hopes to become a lawyer and work to stop human trafficking.
“I made it my life goal to fight it,” Berthmann said. “This is not about me. I’m fine and happy and healthy today. But this is about the 40 million people who are still out there.”