9th Annual Human Trafficking Awareness Program and Walk

By Winter Sierra for The Vista Press…

On January 24, a sunny Saturday afternoon, our local Soroptimist International clubs held their annual Human Trafficking Awareness Program and Walk at the New Community Church of Vista. The event began with participants mingling with a few of the groups supporting the event, such as the Lawyers Club of San Diego, Amnesty International, and Hands of Hope Kyrgyzstan, who each gave explanation of their own organization’s unique purpose and how they relate to the human trafficking cause.

For those who are unfamiliar with Soroptimist, it is an international volunteer organization aiming to improve the lives of girls and women everywhere. The Soroptimist clubs of Vista and Carlsbad/Oceanside worked together to organize this event, which had a great turnout with dozens of eager participants.

At 12:30, participants were ushered into the church. To begin the presentations, the head of Soroptimist of Vista, Kaye Van Nevel, thanked the organizations supporting the event, such as Churches Against Trafficking, Truckers Against Trafficking, and North County Lifeline, and thanked all for coming.

The first guest speaker was Guido Hajenius, who, with his wife Kathie, started the local branch of iEmpathize, which is a non profit group for the preservation and restoration of human rights. Hajenius also works with Truckers Against Trafficking, which works primarily to raise awareness of the child trafficking that often occurs at truck stops. Truckers Against Trafficking allows the truckers to “engage the issue and be part of the solution,” giving them the resources and training they need to identify a possible child-trafficking situation, and know how to handle it. So far, over 100,000 truck drivers have been trained, and over 1,000 human-trafficking calls have been made by those drivers. “These guys are our everyday heros.”

Hajenius also states that iEmpathize currently has a project that will hopefully be implemented in schools in the near future. This Empower Youth Program is common core aligned, ready for schools and is peer-led, meaning teens who have survived being trafficked will be teaching other teens about the issue using various media modules. Most importantly, this program teaches teens empathy for all forms of exploitation. iEmpathize is looking for other organizations to partner with to bring more programs for fighting trafficking to our community.

The afternoon’s next speaker was Crystal Anthony, the program coordinator for North County Lifeline’s Project LIFE. Project LIFE works with the police department and provides on-call help for emergencies involving human trafficking victims. This is vital to many situations where victims are being rescued, as they are often distrustful of law enforcement due to heavy manipulation and brainwashing experienced while trafficked. Anthony is one of the Project LIFE representatives that is front-line for these rescue operations, doing what she can to make the victims feel safe with the officers, and making sure the women know that they will not be treated as criminals, but rather as the victims that they are. Anthony also implements support groups for victims of human trafficking at juvenile hall.

Project LIFE also provides intensive case management for clients, taking a very “victim centered approach,” connecting these victims with the resources they need. Anthony says that the people who provide these services are “just small pieces of their puzzle on what’s helped them to recovery.” To work on prevention of trafficking, a program called Empowering Young Men educates teen boys of the truth of trafficking—that it is not a choice, and that those girls are victims. Many of these boys are involved in gangs that participate and collaborate in the sex trade. Anthony also states that Lifeline has partnered with school districts to train the school trainers on how to implement prevention in their schools, namely by educating about the dangers of social media in these situations.

Oceanside Police Department Vice Investigators in the Human Trafficking Task Force Ryan Erwin and Ryan Davis were the last speakers of the event. They spoke saying that they really wanted to raise awareness among the police force that these girls truly did not choose this lifestyle for themselves. Just recently, a law was passed mandating that every officer, investigator and supervisor is trained and educated about the circumstances that surround most victims of trafficking—the coercion, manipulation, and emotional and physical control that binds these women to these lives. This has helped law enforcement take a different approach towards these women than in the past. Instead of treating them as criminals, these women are treated as victims. “We are here to help you, we’re not concerned with what you’ve done in the past,” Erwin says about the trafficked victims they meet.

The officers also emphasized one of the main ways to prevent trafficking, among teens especially, is by monitoring social media sites. “Social media is probably one of the most important ways for traffickers to contact girls.” Many traffickers use social media to build a relationship with their victims before trapping them into the human trafficking system. Officer Ryan Davis spoke of how the media has normalized pimping, reducing the social stigma that the crime used to have, which only serves as justification for the traffickers to continue the cycle.

The close the event, a one mile walk then took place, led by the Miss Vista and San Diego pageant teens. The walk participants held picket signs about human trafficking to passing cars on the way to the Wave Waterpark, where they turned around to head back towards the church.

Despite all that these programs and organizations continue to do to fight trafficking, San Diego County is still one of the top thirteen worst counties in the nation for human trafficking, and is the 8th largest child prostitution area in the country. As Crystal Anthony said, this is “an issue that each and every one of us can combat.” We call all start by changing our attitude toward human trafficking to one of empathy and understanding for the victims, by raising awareness and even taking the next step to work with one of these organizations to prevent trafficking or help victims. In honor of January being Human Trafficking Awareness Month, everyone can do their part to begin to stop this, not only in January, but all year round.

If you missed the event but are interested in learning more, you can still listen to the presentations! On January 30, The Vista Press will post a video of the program online. Below are the websites to some of the organizations mentioned in the article.

soroptimistvista.org/ – iEmpathize.orgTruckersAgainstTrafficking.orgNCLifeline.org
Human Trafficking Hotline: – 1-888-428-7581
Photos by Winter Sierra
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