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Nonprofit shines light on human trafficking epidemic in Midlands

“Slavery is alive and well in our community,” said Jen Thompson, Executive Director of Lighthouse for Life, at a recent awareness campaign about human trafficking in South Carolina Monday at Radius Church in Lexington.

There are local realities happening here in the local communities, said Thompson adding, “Human trafficking is the second most lucrative criminal enterprise in our country really close behind selling drugs.”

The difference with drugs is that it has to be replenished whereas people are able to be sold over and over again, according to Thompson. The purpose of Monday’s session, along with their many others, is to inform people about this growing epidemic.

“I hope they will open their eyes and see that trafficking happens in our community and (learn) how they can keep their children safe,” said Thompson. She hopes they take away a chance to be educated and empowered to help other people.

In addition to awareness, there are a number of ways people are able to help. Before and after the meeting, guests had an opportunity to purchases items to benefit Lighthouse for Life and a fellow nonprofit supported by trafficking survivors.

Lighthouse for Life thrives on the support of ongoing donations in addition to its volunteers who help spread the word and assist events. One volunteer, Bob Healy, speaks, writes and advocates for the organization doing whatever he is able to do. Healy discovered Lighthouse for Life through his church which he believes is very important to overcoming this heartbreak.

“It’s a tragedy that children are getting coerced into prostitution,” said Healy, “They don’t develop life skills and are trapped by shame and low self-esteem. It’s so sad.”

Healy has looked at the data from Backpage (a source for traffickers) and looking through the numbers, he has calculated revenue more than $104 million.

The numbers are definitely high but it’s very difficult to determine just how many are actually being trafficked, according to Marie Sazehn, Assistant Attorney General of S.C. She has received numbers from about 12 sources in 2015 and from those sources 155 victims were counted in all of South Carolina. Sazehn believes that number is low and there are many uncounted.

In fact, in one week (last week) Sazehn said she received five tips. Without disclosing information about the victim, she describes one case in which, “there was a 15-year-old girl who got mad at her mom and went on Facebook and Facebooked a guy who told her she was pretty. The trafficker picked her up at home, got her high and drunk with his friends and then took her to a hotel room in Richland County where they posted and advertised her on Backpage.com,” described Sazehn.

“It’s all about making money and making a profit,” said Sazehn, commenting that in this case the 15-year-old had a mentality more like a 10-year-old but in the end the outcome was good for the guy who received his punishment.

Traffickers look for people exposing vulnerability, said Sazehn, adding that vulnerabilities are seen through social media postings, hashtags, etc. Runaways are extremely vulnerable, she added and said than traffickers are able to confront a runaway within 72 hours.

The victims and even the traffickers never decided human trafficking is what they are going to accomplish growing up which is why Lighthouse for Life makes their tagline “Grace Wins,” according to Thompson.

“The biggest thing people need to know is that trafficking is happening and people are selling humans to others in our state. People are purchasing commercial sex in this state. The first step is being aware of the problem,” said Thompson.

Awareness and education are one of the organization’s missions and their other mission they are currently raising funds for is a safe house for girls ages 12 to 17, according to Thompson. The organization has a house currently being renovated and the opening date depends on DSS licensure, renovations and necessary funding, she added.

When Lighthouse for Life does open their safe house, it will be the first in the state for minor girls, according to Thompson who noted the importance of having a tunnel vision. Lighthouse for Life is always on the lookout for speaking opportunities to churches, civic organizations and myriad of places. For more information, contact Lighthouse for Life at 803-900-0907 or info@lighthouseforlife.org. The 24-hour National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.

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