• Willow Staff

Entry Ramps - Trafficking's Powerful Stories

When I speak to community groups about the services of The Willow, I rattle off a laundry list of things we do. "Shelter, court advocacy, support to kids in foster care, safety planning, support groups, human trafficking program, youth prevention..." and the list goes on. Inevitably someone will stop me and say "Wait, what? Is human trafficking really a thing around here?"

Yes, it's a thing, but it's probably not what you think it is.

This was a central point of the message Rebecca Bender delivered to two different audiences in Lawrence this week. Rebecca is a survivor of trafficking who mentors survivors, speaks nationally to help raise awareness and understanding of trafficking, and has written two books and a toolkit on the subject. 

The Douglas County Human Trafficking Task Force, with funding from The Kansas Attorney General's Office, collaborated to bring Rebecca to Lawrence as a culmination of Human Trafficking Awareness month. Almost 300 community members, leaders, and partners gathered at The Library and at The Cider Gallery for one of two of Rebecca's riveting presentations.

Rebecca asked the audience to consider mythology around trafficking. She explained that we have an image of a young girl who has been "snatched" by a trafficker, bound on a dirty mattress and forced into sexual servitude. We have ideas about vans full of immigrant women or runaways being trucked around the country. And while these things can and do happen, they are very much not the norm in the 3 billion dollar industry that is trafficking in this country.

Trafficking begins with one of these three things: Force, Fraud, or Coercion. In Rebecca's case, her trafficker groomed her and tricked her into moving to Las Vegas. He didn't force her - but he did fraudulently coerce her. He promised her a life, a family, and support for her and her young daughter. He claimed to work in the music industry, and "dated" her for six months before forcing her into a world she knew nothing about, states away from her family and friends. 

Traffickers are experts in identifying vulnerabilities and exploiting them. People can be trafficked by their partners, parents, aunts, uncles, landlords, and other individuals who have promised safety and then used that vulnerability against the victim. Traffickers have discovered that a human body is a commodity that doesn't have to be replenished. A trafficker can sell a person over and over and over again, unlike a drug or other product that has to be procured.

The Willow served over 50 victims of human trafficking last year. The state of Kansas had over 500 identified victims. These numbers do not reflect the scale of the problem, though. Victims are brainwashed, threatened, and beaten into silence. Often, they are minors, but always, they are vulnerable.

Bender shared her story and enlightened her audience regarding the truth about trafficking. She showed us how prostitution is rarely a business someone enters into willingly or without exploitation. She challenged us to find a way to be part of the solution. She offers a free tool online to help folks who are interested find "their lane" - a path to helping the effort in fighting human trafficking. We all have something to offer. We can ALL help. If you need assistance in discovering how visit her website at https://rebeccabender.org/in-pursuit-of-love

We are so grateful for our partners and The Office of the Attorney General for helping us make this day happen in Lawrence, KS. Hearts and eyes were opened. Progress is happening. Willow staff is happy to visit with you, your business, or your organization about our work to end human trafficking in Douglas, Franklin, and Jefferson counties. Reach out to me at mstuke@willowdvcenter.org to schedule a meeting or presentation.


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