Editor’s note: This blog post was written by Katherine Thorne, an aspiring human rights lawyer interning with youthSpark. Katherine is a student at the University of Virginia, and has been instrumental in evaluating juvenile court system processes for connecting at-risk youth with early intervention services. We are thankful for her service, and inspired by her blog post!
I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a novice on the topic of sex trafficking. Throughout high school I had heard about the prostitution of youth as a troubling and pervasive issue throughout the U.S. However, I never pursued learning any more about the topic until a year ago.
Last summer I spent two months in southern Ghana researching child labor trafficking in the fishing industry on an ethics grant from the University of Virginia. My research highlighted the lack of governmental infrastructure for providing rehabilitation for trafficking victims, and the often insurmountable difficulties posed by a developing country’s bureaucracy in trying to stop permanently the cycles of labor trafficking. These findings frustrated me to no end. I boarded a plane back to the U.S. and finished my two months feeling hopeless about whether I would be able to come back to continue working with the victimized children I had interviewed. However, I resolved that the following summer I would work closer to home on issues of human trafficking, so that I could feasibly commit more time and energy to resolving the human rights issue.
Initially I had assumed that poverty, unstable households, and a lack of education put young girls more at risk to be trafficked, just as it put young Ghanaian children at higher risk to be trafficked for their labor. However, on my first day I learned that any minor from any social class, any sort of household, and any background can be subjugated and victimized by the sex trafficking industry within the U.S.
After hearing that metro Atlanta has a high rate of child sex trafficking, I was appalled. Knowing that while I was going to bed, approximately 100-200 girls younger than me were being sexually exploited only minutes from where I live, I felt heartbroken but eager to be a part of youthSpark’s mission.
Learning that young girls who were prostituted by older adult males were more likely to be arrested and given jail time than the adults who trafficked them was the most shocking thing I learned on my first day. These young girls seemed to be victimized continually and then punished, while their perpetrators went free. Though there still is much to be done to fully eradicate sex trafficking even in the metro Atlanta area, I felt hopeful after seeing the historical progress in the last ten years made by this community in the fight against trafficking.
I am encouraged by youthSpark’s efforts to work within the infrastructure of government by working alongside juvenile court judges and probation officers, lobbying at the capitol, working on public policy, and fighting for effective sentencing for sex traffickers—both buyers and sellers—in order to stop sex trafficking in our community. During my internship at youthSpark, I hope to learn more about sex trafficking in Atlanta, and what we can do as a community to diminish the demand for prostituted minors and therefore eliminate sex trafficking in our backyard.
Editor’s note: the following blog post was written by Avni Ahuja, an intern at youthSpark. Avni has already had a great impact on the movement through her commitment to youthSpark, but her voice in motivating other youth to get involved in the issue is particularly inspiring. Avni is the incoming Vice President of her PATH Club at Alpharetta High School. We are grateful for her, as well as the rest of the PATH Club student activists!
I was first exposed to the subject of human trafficking at a youthSpark Teen Community Ambassador Training in 2014. I came out shocked and maybe a little discouraged, even though the experience was definitely educating. First let me clarify: I was discouraged because human trafficking is such a widespread, lucrative practice that I did not know what to address or where to start. It was completely overwhelming. Child sex trafficking is at the center of a complex web of bureaucracy, exploitation, and media. What is more horrifying is that a large amount of the public is scarcely aware of this problem because trafficking has become so ingrained in our society that many people fail to recognize when it is happening. How could I immerse myself in such a global and urgent issue? Where would I even begin?
After my initial hesitation, I decided to take youthSpark’s advice and become involved in my community. My first step was assuming a greater role in my high school’s PATH (People Against Trafficking Humans) Club. This year I served as secretary, and I admit there were many ups and downs. Teen participation is always a challenge, but the members involved gave 100% effort. Our effectiveness was a testament to “quality over quantity”. Organizing a seemingly simple event such as a guest speaker required months of preparation and extensive communication with our school’s administration, but the outcome was rewarding.
Our biggest success this year was participating in the 2015 DMST Lobby Day, which was attended by 20 or so PATH Club members. We observed a floor hearing in the Capitol on DMST legislation, and some legislators seemed less engaged in the hearing than those of us in the audience were. After rallying with other purple scarf-clad supporters, my fellow PATH Club members and I came back to school with a new resolve. If there was ever a turning point for me, this was it.
Now, here I am as Vice President of Alpharetta High School’s PATH Club, and a brand new intern at youthSpark. I am excited about the opportunities this internship is providing me. But, it is up to me to open the proverbial doors to see what further opportunities await. I hope that I will contribute to youthSpark in a meaningful way, but also be able to bring back what I have learn to others in my community, where many have yet to acknowledge that child sex trafficking is an issue in our own backyards.
I look forward with optimism because I am confident that the efforts of everyone participating in this humanitarian movement will positively impact the lives of future generations. Whenever I feel discouraged, I remember the bigger picture and the reason why I care so much about human trafficking. After all, every little thing we do can end up making a big difference, often in ways that we cannot foresee at the time.
Editor’s note: the following post was written by Sofia Broffman, a talented intern at youthSpark preparing to enter her senior year at the Atlanta Girls’ School. Not only do we greatly appreciate her hard work, but we are in awe of her depth of understanding of this complicated subject matter. Please enjoy her essay, and share it widely to help spread the word!
What comes to mind when you hear the words “sex trafficking”? Do these words conjure up images of far-off places? Brothels in Bangladesh, dimly lit side streets in India, or the flashing red light district in Amsterdam? Most likely when you hear these words, you don’t think of your own city, your own neighborhood, your own backyard, Atlanta.
Growing up in Atlanta, my childhood was very much idyllic. I would spend my days playing outside, completely immersed in my own perfect world. As I grew up, I started realizing that this “perfect bubble” I was given was far from reality. As many realities in this world suddenly started to seem unfair to me, one of the most shocking realities hit me when I was in seventh grade. I learned that one of my classmates was being trafficked by her mom to fuel her drug addiction. I already knew that sex trafficking existed in other parts of the world from watching my dad, a documentary filmmaker, make an International Justice Mission (IJM) documentary that focused on sex trafficking in Asia. When I found out that a girl I knew was experiencing the same horrors in the city I grew up in, I was disgusted. I was further shocked when she dropped out of school and I never saw her again. This drove me to want to learn all I could about this appalling industry and how it affects Atlanta.
With Atlanta being a hub of child sex trafficking, I learned quickly just how much of an issue it is in our city. I was horrified to find out girls and boys as young as ones I babysit were being lured into this terrible industry. What stood out to me was how easy it is for pimps to start a connection with youth via social media. With the rise of apps such as kik and tinder, it is easy for kids to become acquainted with strangers in an environment that tolerates inappropriate language and pictures. I think a big step in ensuring safety for many kids is to inform them that the stereotype of a pimp in a big fur coat, top hat, and drop top Cadillac is just that—a stereotype. Pimps look like everyday people, even family members, and this is why it is so easy for vulnerable girls and boys to begin a trusting relationship with a person who doesn’t seem to be a criminal.
A couple days ago, on my second day interning at youthSpark, a group of girls came in to learn about child sex trafficking in Atlanta. As the hour passed by, many of the girls had looks of shock. I was under the impression that the majority of them were unaware of the severity of this issue prior to the conversation. At the end of the meeting, the girls were asked to tell three of their friends about child sex trafficking in Atlanta and were given notecards with numbers for various hotlines if they suspect something to be awry. One of the first steps to ensuring the safety of girls in our city is informing others of the problem. Once they know what to look out for, they can both spread the word about the severity of child sex trafficking and help girls and boys who show signs of being victimized.
Since teenagers are the leaders of tomorrow, the more aware we are now, the more change we can make in our future. I hope that during my internship I will be able to reach out to my fellow peers to inform them of this problem, so that youth like my former classmate won’t be victimized by this hideous crime. It’s a crime that can rob girls and boys of their innocence, security, and dignity.
By Haley Vincent, youthSpark Intern and leader of the Global Women’s Club at Westminster
Happy summer! As excited as all of us are to have a long and much needed break from school, we know it can be harder to find ways to advocate and raise awareness for youthSpark and the issue of child sex trafficking when school isn’t in session. We’ve created this short list of action steps you can take to continue all the great work you’re doing. We want you to use this list as a way to get started, but we also want you to use your own creativity and passion to make these ideas your own. Good luck—we can’t wait to see the exciting work we know you’ll do!
1. Have summer meetings with your Igniter club
If you have an Igniter club, do your best to continue to meet even during the summer. You don’t have to meet as frequently as during the school year, but a meeting once or twice a month will make it easier to jump right back in when school starts. Come up with ideas for events you could host, plan a few of your meetings, or even plan a school assembly. This is a great way to make sure your Igniter club will have a great and productive year!
2. Spread the word through social media
Most people are checking their social media accounts frequently during the summer, so take advantage of that by liking or sharing youthSpark’s Facebook posts and favoriting or retweeting youthSpark’s tweets. And check out our new Instagram account @youthsparkinc!
3. Support the girls in youthSpark Voices
Send the girls supportive letters, or maybe even make jewelry or other DIY gifts for them. They will be so grateful to know that you care about them and are thinking of them!
4. Intern with youthSpark
Summer is a great time to become a youthSpark intern! We are always looking for students who want to be a part of the youthSpark movement to end child sex trafficking. In addition to providing essential programmatic assistance to youthSpark staff, interns will gain an understanding of critical issues for youth in metropolitan Atlanta, learn more about the way a non-profit organization operates, obtain valuable skills they can take into the workforce upon graduation and participate in networking opportunities with youthSpark staff and juvenile court employees. We are looking for both high school and college age interns. You will need to have two recommendations, a resume, and a short essay. Email Allison Hood at email@example.com to get the official application.
5. Write a blog post
Write a blog post for the official youthSpark blog. We believe in the power of youth, and we want you to use your voice. The post can be about anything from why trafficking matters to you, to what your club does against the cause, or more! Look at the youthSpark blog for ideas and be sure to check the blog for upcoming youthSpark events you can attend during the summer! Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
6. Speak with your legislators
Learn who your senator/representative is:
Call and/or email them! Tell them that you’re one of many passionate teens in your community that support anti-trafficking legislation. Afterwards, check with your legislators to see how they’ve followed through with fighting against trafficking.
7. Host events during the summer!
You can still host your own events to raise awareness and funds, including:
–“Don’t Pimp My Ride” car wash
–fashion show or trunk show
–movie night (you could watch “Very Young Girls”)
–donation drive for the girls in youthSpark Voices
By Andrea Dempsey, youthSpark Intern and Community Ambassador
As I walked into my first Community Ambassador Training at Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Roswell, I had no idea what to expect. I had an interest in the topic of child sex trafficking ever since I heard Atlanta was a major hub for the industry, but I had no idea the forms it took or what it looked like. I was clueless as to the laws on the books that addressed the issue. I did not know who were the buyers, the pimps, or the girls. Where did they live? How old were they? I also was unaware of how I could make a difference. How could I, just one person, tackle the billion dollar sex trade industry? Attending this training answered many of these questions, and of course it sparked even more questions in my mind. I now am more educated about the issue, and I also feel inspired to do all I can to help.
One of the best aspects of the training was how we started the session. By going around the room and introducing ourselves, I learned how this issue affects such a diverse group of people. I was inspired by listening to the forty-some people in that church basement, from a young high-school student to a grandparent, men and women, teachers and business people- they all wanted to help. This issue is not just a women’s issue, or an inner-city issue. It is an issue that impacts everyone in our community because it happens in every community.
Not only did I enjoy connecting with my community about a topic that we all were passionate about, but I also learned so much from just three short hours. I was not very knowledgeable about this issue before attending, but even Allison Hood, a program coordinator at youthSpark, said she always learns something new from these sessions. This industry is constantly changing, with online activity from websites like Backpage, to seasonal events like the Super Bowl. The child sex industry changes with its environment, so there will always be a new angle from which we can look at this topic.
When the training session came to an end, I did not feel hopeless or discouraged because Jennifer (Swain) gave our group the tools we need to help stop child sex trafficking. If you attended, ask yourself: what is my call to action? As a marketing student and youthSpark intern, I plan to work with the branding and business end of youthSpark. But no matter who you are, you have a special skill or talent that is unique, and you can use it to help children who are at risk of being exploited or have already been exploited. This training will spark those connections.
It is amazing what Jennifer can teach in just three hours. Myself and other members of the community had the opportunity to network with one another, understand more about an issue we were interested in, and learn how we can make a difference. Whether you know nothing or everything about commercial sex trafficking, I highly encourage you to attend one of these trainings. It is the best way you can spend your Saturday morning!
For more information on our next Community Ambassador Training, email email@example.com.
By Haley Vincent, youthSpark Intern
For the past two spring breaks I have had the amazing opportunity to go with my church, Peachtree Presbyterian, on a mission trip to Kolkata, India to work with girls who are victims of sex trafficking in aftercare homes. These girls are anywhere from 13 to 18 years old, and they way that they are trafficked as well as what they experience while trapped in sexual slavery is remarkably similar to the experiences of girls here in the United States. The girls are put in the aftercare homes to keep them safe and prevent re-entry, however many homes in India are too large with too few and improperly trained staff, and the girls end up in an environment that is nothing short of a jail. We were able to work with an aftercare home in Kolkata that provides quality care: the Mahima home. Mahima is a small Christian aftercare home with about 25 girls and around the same number of staff who are all certified therapists, so the girls receive professional therapy on a normal basis, as well as receiving support from all the staff members. We worked with girls in both the Mahima home and a larger home that is more typical of aftercare in India to give the girls one- on- one attention and let them know that there are people who care about them and want to spend time with them.
When we are with the girls, we make picture frames, string beads to make jewelry, decorate notebooks, and do their favorite thing—dance. The girls are all beautiful and charismatic dancers. They attempt to teach us traditional Indian dances, and they laugh loudly with us when we try to repeat the moves. I was fifteen on my first trip and sixteen on my second trip, so most of the girls are around my age, and dancing with them makes it so clear to me that they are normal teenage girls who love to laugh and joke around. Their resilience and ability to bounce back from the trauma they have faced always amazes me and reminds me that although sex trafficking is one of the most horrible evils in our world today and recovery is extremely difficult for its victims, it is possible.
Although we are faced with a language barrier and limited by the short amount of time we are able to spend at the homes, all members of our mission team were able to create special bonds with girls and even hear their stories. One girl shared through a translator that she was trapped in a brothel for several years of one of the most brutal brothel owners in Kolkata. The brother owner would beat, rape, and even murder the girls in front of each other to “break them in” to life at the brothel and break down them down emotionally to the point that even if they could physically run away, they have either no willpower to do so or have a crippling fear that stops them from attempting escape. The girl was finally rescued by a human rights organization, International Justice Mission, after over seven attempts to get her out of the brothel. The brothel owner was captured and sentenced to ten years of hard labor in prison, an unusually harsh sentence in India that sends a clear message to other brothel owners in the area. The girl smiled broadly after finishing the hard part of her story and shared that she now feels safe and loved in her new home at Mahima, and that she dreams of being a social worker when she grows up so she can help other girls. This girl is a great example of the fact that with the right kind of aftercare and support services, recovery is possible. Although both mission trips could be dark and heavy at points, we were able to hear many other stories of hope and see for ourselves the wonderful people that these girls are. After interacting with these victims I have never been more confident that the fight against trafficking is one hundred percent worth it, even if it only affects one girl.
This training during Father’s Day weekend is the perfect opportunity to invite the men in your life to learn more about how they can fight child sex trafficking!
Saturday, June 14, 2014
Zion Missionary Baptist Church–Fellowship Hall
888 Zion Circle
Roswell, GA 30075
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP.
Continental breakfast will be provided.
youthSpark Community Ambassadors are community members who volunteer their time to raise awareness regarding child sex trafficking and keeping their friends and family informed! This one-time 3 hour training session provides education on child sex trafficking here in Georgia, the demand for these children, red flags to look for, services available for any child in need of help, and how to report this crime to law enforcement.
By Shayann Hendricks, youthSpark Igniter
Atlanta International School Against Human Trafficking (AISAHT) hasn’t been around very long; we started in 2012, just a group of high school freshmen, horrified by the idea of human trafficking but with no real understanding of what it was, or the extent to which it exists in Atlanta. As a group we were very determined to understand the problem and attempt to work against it, and we had an amazing teacher, Ms. McDaniel, who was willing and eager to help us. But often we found ourselves a bit lost, not exactly sure where to begin or how we could help.
The first time we worked with youthSpark was towards the end of 2012. We met in our school’s library, fifteen or so students and youthSpark’s former Executive Director, Sharon Joseph. Sharon spent almost an hour with us, explaining how youthSpark was looking for schools and passionate students to work with. She gave us an introduction to the issue of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), a specific form of human trafficking, and then spent almost twenty minutes answering the questions we had. After this incredible introduction, we had many other meetings with youthSpark. We met some of their other leaders, Sarah Conklin and Jennifer Swain, equally inspiring young women who enthusiastically undertook daunting projects such as presenting to our entire high school, and introducing us to other schools.
youthSpark became this amazing forum for us, a medium through which we could learn about human trafficking and get involved in combating it. After meeting with youthSpark, our group began to pick up speed; we had bake sales, donating the money we made, and we got involved in Stop DMST Lobby Day. We attended youthSpark’s ambassador trainings, while also training with programs such as Darkness to Light, and we finally had access to the information we had been looking for. youthSpark gave us an opportunity to grasp the information we had been looking for. It enabled us to begin projects of our own, such as AISAHT’s Information Session, where we spent almost an hour presenting the issue of human trafficking to the parents and students present.
Personally, youthSpark was the push I had been looking for. The issue of human trafficking is something I am very passionate about; it’s an issue that has no boundaries, impacting people from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and races. youthSpark enabled me to share my passion about this issue with others, and to become part of the battle against human trafficking in ways I otherwise would not have been able to. The chance to work with an organization like youthSpark is not something that comes along often, and I’m very grateful for all the support they have given me and AISAHT.
Busy Bee owner Tracy Gates with youthSpark Intern Camille Henderson
youthSpark is extremely grateful for the support of Ms. Gates and Busy Bee Café! For the past 4 years, Busy Bee has sponsored meals and other tokens of love for girls participating in our annual youthSpark Voices Recognition Ceremony. youthSpark Voices is an early intervention program for girls at risk for trafficking involvement or extremely vulnerable to exploiter. Get more information about youthSpark Voices here.
Tracy Gates, owner of The Busy Bee Cafe here in Atlanta, has certainly shown herself committed to the fight to end child sex trafficking. In honor of youthSpark Voices, Busy Bee donated catering for the 2013 Graduation and Recognition Ceremony. youthSpark Voices is the first prevention/early intervention program in Georgia working with girls deemed high risk for child sex trafficking involvement. When asked why she got involved with youthSpark and the fight to end child sex trafficking, Gates replied, “because I’m in the food business, that’s the greatest way I can give back.”
With Gates, donating food is just the beginning. Whether it’s donating clothes or helping with local donation drives, Gates is always at the ready. “It’s whenever they call,” says Gates. She continues, “Anytime that you can go beyond yourself, especially for children who don’t ask for these situations is reason for getting involved.” Gates has long expressed her commitment to the well-being of at-risk and inner city youth. In addition to her partnership with youthSpark, Gates also serves with Hands on Atlanta – a local nonprofit organization.
For Gates, good food has circulated through her family for years. Named after an observation of bees in motion, The Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta was passed down to Tracey Gates from her father. Reflecting on her chance to run the restaurant, Gates said, “I wanted to have my turn, but wanted to brand it. It’s not just about a business that I inherited, it’s a place that God gave me.”
It certainly is evident that Gates has made Busy Bee her own. Knowing that, “the size is what people come for,” Gates is purposeful in retaining the authenticity of what Busy Bee sells. Gates made it her prerogative to learn the nature of the product which she then documented for all to share. “There is a recipe for everything here – that teaches us not to lose our hand in cooking a specific dish.” In her journey of owning a restaurant and learning what will sustain the business, Gates simply explains, “I want to be able to deliver a great product.”
Tying her first love of food back to why she became involved in the fight to end child sex trafficking Gates reflects, “Your gifts and talents are within. When you reach inside yourself that’s when you succeed.”
January 11th is Human Trafficking Awareness Day! Take our I AM AWARE Challenge and share this infographic with your friends and family via social media and tag youthSpark! Each One, Reach One!