During the 2015-2016 school year, I had the privilege of mentoring a senior at Brookfield High School, Maia Sambuco, for her Senior Capstone project. The following blog piece is a reflection on the work we did together over the course of the school year to help stop human trafficking in the state of Connecticut. It was a pleasure getting to know Maia, a girl with a big heart, on a mission to help save girls and vulnerable teens from a life of human trafficking. Thankfully, Maia learned quite a bit about the dark side of human trafficking and labor exploitation, but she's now educating her friends about how they, too, can create change, by buying fairly traded chocolate or coffee, boycotting Wendy's, or shopping at Goodwill or Savers, to eliminate slavery in your own life. ~Dorina Leslie
If you told me a year ago that I would spend nine months working as an aspiring anti-human trafficking activist and attending conferences, talking on TV shows, speaking to authors, and interviewing survivors, I probably would have laughed at you and walked away.The fact is, though, that I did venture into the dark world of human trafficking, and my eyes were opened wide to a dark and secret world that exist, sadly, right here in Connecticut. My journey began with a desire to help women in our area who have been sexually abused, bullied, and raped for my Senior Capstone Project. The Capstone is an optional project that students in their senior year school can participate in during the culminating months of their high school career. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do something worthwhile and to design a project with the intent of helping others.
I was raised in a home that supports and values the sanctity of life in all forms. My mother taught me to be kind and compassionate towards everyone, despite differences that may exist between us. My grandmother holds her faith dearly and used it to teach me everyone in this world is worth something and that we should never turn a blind eye to a person in need. My aunt taught me that diversity is one of the most beautiful aspects of our world and that it should be cherished and protected at all costs. I would like to say that all of these values shaped me into a powerful and fearless young woman who fights for the rights of those who are unjustly wronged. It's good to have values and beliefs that you are passionate about, but they are useless if you don't act on them and use them to better yourself and the people around you. I’ve always wished for an opportunity to educate myself and help others in a big way and luckily, I was given one in my senior year of high school as I prepared for my Capstone Project
My original plan for my project was to volunteer at the local Women's Center, but technicalities got in the way, and I found myself sitting in the office of my school's career adviser, Mrs. Troupe, asking her to help me outline my senior project. As we discussed what interested me, my teacher recognized my desire to focus on women's issues and she decided to contact a woman she knew from the community who might be able to help me. Ten minutes later, I found myself speaking on the phone with Dorina Leslie, the mother of a fellow student in my class of 2016, Justin, and a massage therapist with a mission to help stop human trafficking and labor exploitation in our world. She even has her own little advocacy campaign called Shine the Light Project. Dorina selflessly took time out of her busy day to meet with me that same afternoon. With her help, this would be the first step in my long journey; she would help open my eyes to a world that I knew existed but never cared to acknowledge.
From that enlightening day in early fall, my life has forever changed. I learned that every single one of us on this planet can make small changes in our buying habits that can actually help end modern day slavery. Did you know that slavery exists in the chocolate industry or that many of the clothes we wear are made by people who are forced to work around the clock, in horrible, dirty conditions? Before this day, I am not so sure I gave this a thought, but now I have a different perspective.
During our talk, I learned about some of the injustices that are playing out underneath our noses every single day. The passion in Dorina's voice, as she briefly introduced me to the world and horrors of trafficking, ignited a yearning in myself to work alongside her and to learn more about this hidden world and to right the wrongs that exist in our world. She had been learning all about labor exploitation in the agricultural and clothing industries, as well as the human trafficking of young children - most of them poor, female, and vulnerable - right here in our sweet state of Connecticut.
I’d like to think I’ve grown into a more thoughtful and socially-conscious person, one who can inspire friends and family in my circle to create changes in their lives. Now that I am aware of this dark human rights issue, I find myself re-evaluating a lot of my old habits, buying Fair Trade chocolate, coffee, or tea whenever possible or supporting retailers who care about the rights of America’s farm workers.
Dorina also told me about the Fair Food Program which encourages big food companies to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes grown in Florida. This highly successful human right program works tirelessly to help give farm workers safe working environments and fair wages. Before this day, I was clueless about the rapes and abuse that farm workers experience every day at work.
I learned that four of the five fast food giants - McDonald's, Subway, Taco Bell, and Burger King - have all agreed to pay the extra penny per pound for the tomatoes that decorate their burgers and fast food sandwiches. Wendy's, for some reason, refuses and has been a real hold-out. Wendy’s buys their tomatoes from the same exact farms that the other fast food giants buy theirs from, too; however, they refuse to pay the extra penny per pound to ensure these hard-working farm workers can live with dignity.
These workers live in tiny little dilapidated trailers with no air conditioning, and often with several families. They work from sun up to sun down, and they are just looking for a way to pay for food on their own tables, clothing for their children, and a decent wage. They are truly living in poverty. I learned that Wendy’s also buys their tomatoes from farms that are in violation of the Fair Food Program, farms where rapes and violence against workers still continue, and that just made my heart break. Supporters of the Fair Food Program - McDonald’s, Subway, Taco Bell, Chipotle, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Stop & Shop - on the other hand, refuse to buy tomatoes from farms where there have been violations against the workers. Ever since I learned about this, I catch myself telling my friends that instead of getting the 4 for 5 deal at Wendy’s, we should instead eat at home or purchase our fast-food at a more socially-conscious company.
Along with the all of the new knowledge I was gaining, I also had incredible opportunities to be part of the Elm City Abolitionists’ hotel outreach, hitting the streets with Dorina to educate local hotel staff about the signs of human trafficking. We enjoyed five minutes of fame on the Marty Heiser Talk Show, along with another young abolitionist, Lanna Nawa. Lanna, Dorina and I all participated in a hotel outreach, as part of the Love146 Elm City Abolitionists volunteer program. Check out our five minutes of fame in this awesome video, complete with lots of facts about human trafficking and ideas for how to stop it, here:
Dorina and I also collaborated with two authors and anti-trafficking activists, Raymond Bechard and Wendy Barnes. I had the great fortune to talk to Wendy Barnes, a human trafficking survivor and author of the book, And Life Continues: Life After Sex Trafficking.
Before I interviewed Wendy, I of course read her book. It’s not a pretty read, that’s for sure. Wendy recounts the horrifying and traumatic experiences she endured while she was a slave in the sex-trade industry - trafficked by the father of her three children, Greg. She shared the intimate details of her life, from childhood to adulthood, and I was blown away by all that she’s overcome to live a normal life again....all she ever wanted to do was to be a mom to her three kids.
Being involved in The Life made living her dream very difficult, but today Wendy proudly works in a regular office job, where she's valued as a person, not just looked upon as someone who was a prostitute. When we spoke with Wendy, she was going through an especially hard time in her life, trying to find housing. Sadly, because she'd been trafficked, Wendy spent time in prison and was also labeled a sex offender, which has really made her life difficult, to say the least. When she was being trafficked, Wendy was privy to the knowledge that her trafficker and father to her three children Greg, was selling underage girls for sex, Wendy was also guilty, to some extent, of not protecting these young girls. In her mind, though, she was trapped, for if she had gone to the police, Wendy would have been severely abused, bother verbally and physically, which was a regular thing for her to endure.
Wendy described everything from the trauma of the sexual abuse she endured as a young girl, to how she was enticed by Greg, her sixteen year old boyfriend who introduced her to The Life. She found herself living a most unusual life, hitting the streets at nights, sleeping with several men and turning her money over to Greg, and then coming home to take care of her three children, surrounded by several young girls and lots of drugs. Wendy and the other girls lived in fear of Greg and his violent abuse and manipulation. I was astonished that Wendy was remotely able to raise her three children in this dark, unsafe environment. It was far from any life I’d ever known,yet this has been Wendy's reality. Eventually, Wendy escaped The Life and spent two years in jail. Greg is still serving time for the trafficking of several underage girls.
Learning about human trafficking through conferences and power points, where you are given facts and statistical information about the industry, is great, but reading a book written by an actual survivor and being able to talk to Wendy - a real life survivor - gave me a new awareness of a dark world that I will never truly be able to understand.
Wendy’s book was incredibly well-written and captivating, and I found myself unable to put the book down. Rationally, I knew that prostitution, drug addiction, along with sexual, physical, and emotional abuse were all horrific truths of the sex-trade industry, but until I read Wendy's book, it was difficult for me to emotionally and mentally comprehend the sickening reality that is unfolding in the dirty bed sheets of crappy motels across the nation: to actually hear Wendy tell her story over the phone made it even more real to me.
As I listened to Wendy recounting the horrendous events that transpired in her life, something deep within me was affected. It was as if for the first time I truly realized that this is a life that real, living people - many of them girls around my age, some even younger - are forced to endure. This is not just something that takes place in Thailand or Malaysia or China, but right here in the good ol’ United States of America, the land of the free. I learned so much while speaking to Wendy, and not just black and white facts. I know that I will never in my life truly be able to understand what this life is like - nor will I pretend to - but I do think that I gained a new level of comprehension that will prove to be absolutely invaluable to me as I continue this work and beyond.
During this journey, I also met Dorina’s friend, author and activist, Raymond Bechard. I first met Ray back in May of 2016 in a Stew Leonard’s parking lot up in Newington, Connecticut. We made a plan to spend a Wednesday afternoon, so Ray could take us on a tour of the sleazy motels that lined the Berlin Turnpike.
We would soon see for ourselves that these cheesy, outdated motels were where sex trafficking and prostitution are alive and well. As the three of us drove up and down the 11-mile long stretch, which is home to over 1,000 dilapidated motel rooms, Dorina and I were in disbelief that this is actually happening - right here under our noses. These aren’t your typical Holiday Inn which hosts business men and women, no, this is the kind you of blast from the past you might expect see up in the Catskills or the Poconos. These are more akin to the famous “Baits Motel”, very retro and somewhat sketchy, with a row of doors lining the front parking lot. “Why are these out-dated, dilapidated motels still here in Newington, Connecticut?” we wondered aloud. Newington is a town that looks just like any other, with shopping centers, Stew Leonard’s and even home to the Connecticut Center for Massage Therapy. Led by Ray, we were shocked and deeply disturbed, just knowing that hundreds of girls - probably thousands - have been forced to have sex in any of these dilapidated, run-down rooms.
During our undercover investigation, Ray gave us the history of the Berlin Turnpike. It was originally created back at the turn of the 20th century to make it easier for travelers going from New Haven to Hartford and then on to Massachusetts. In the 1940s, construction of the four-lane highway began, and with it all these little motels popped up to host the weary travelers. Visions of Ward and June Cleaver come to mind, with happy families piling into their cars, heading north to Newington for a country ride. But times have changed, and while most of these motels have remained the same, they are now home base for traffickers. It was, to say the very least, a surreal experience. Ray pointed out that when a door to the parking lot is left ajar, this is a sign that says to the johns: “Open For Business.” Oddly enough, some expensive, high-end cars - Mercedes and Range Rovers - were parked out front at some of these establishments. Sure enough, these cars were parked right in front of the room with the open door. It really made our skin crawl.
With each motel we passed, questions just raced through my mind. “Human trafficking is happening here? How many girls have been forced to perform sex in these rooms? Is this woman being trafficked? Should we stop and help her? Do people know that this is happening here? Why don’t more people know about this?” I knew that it was happening, but I wasn’t able to comprehend it until we drove passed each hotel and saw the open doors on the second floor, which Ray explained was an invitation to men to come in. An open door means "Open For Business"...come on in and buy a girl, gets some drugs, too, for the two crimes go hand-in-hand.
This whole journey has been so enlightening and educational. I have learned so much and am so thankful to everyone who helped me along the way. I truly believe that the way I look at this world has changed and that I am a more thoughtful and empowered person because of it. Thank you so much to Raymond, Wendy, Mrs. Troupe, and of course, Dorina Leslie. These people have gone above and beyond to help me and have taught me so much along the way. I will cherish the lessons I’ve learned forever. I hope that I can continue this work in the future and make other people aware that these horrors do exist in this world but that there is a solution.