Before I wrote this article, my understanding of human trafficking was limited to what I had seen in movies like Taken and Crash. Needless to say, I had a lot of learning to do.
Present Age Ministries opened my eyes to the reality of human trafficking. As a mother of a daughter and as a Charlottean, I was stunned to learn that it's prevalent, it's pervasive, and it's happening right in front of our eyes - to girls in every ZIP code in this community.
Charlotte is the number-one city for human trafficking in a state that ranks eighth in the country. Considering only two percent of worldwide human trafficking victims are rescued, it's clear that this city needs help.
"Girls in our community are going willingly into this life," says Mary-Catherine Freeman, Development Director at Present Age Ministries, a Charlotte-based nonprofit dedicated to combating the human trafficking of teen girls. "They're being promised a future, they're being promised love, but what they're finding on the other end is something very different."
Many cases start with a young girl and her social media account - think Instagram or Snapchat. An older man gets in touch with the girl, flatters her, gets into a relationship with her, and once she becomes dependent on him for emotional or financial support, he convinces her to engage in sexual exploitation.
"Contrary to popular belief, force and violence are commonly used to maintain victims in the lifestyle, but not necessarily to recruit them," says Mary-Catherine.
How can we as a community keep our children safe from human trafficking, how can we recognize it when it's happening, and how can we help survivors? Present Age Ministries is a large part of the answer to these questions.
In operation for ten years, Present Age takes a three-pronged approach to combating human trafficking: prevention, awareness, and recovery.
Present Age tackles prevention through school assemblies and small-group programs. The assemblies use videos, interactive learning and real-life scenarios to equip teens with the tools they need to keep themselves and their friends safe from human trafficking, and to report red flags.
The small group program is for girls who have shown risk factors and attend schools in areas vulnerable to human trafficking. Groups meet once a week and discuss a different topic at each gathering. These groups serve as a safe space where girls can have honest conversations and feel free to ask questions.
The testimonials from small group graduates speak volumes about the impact of this program:
"The week on self-image had the biggest impact on me. I used to see myself as an ugly slob, but now I see myself as a beautiful young woman."
"In this group I really feel like I have a voice; like I actually matter. Throughout the year I have experienced so much hate and hardship, but when I came here I always felt loved and cared about."
As soon as my eyes were opened about the reality of human trafficking in Charlotte, I asked Mary-Catherine of Present Age Ministries what I should look out for - as a mom, and as a resident of Mecklenburg County.
"It starts early," said Mary-Catherine. "Instill a strong sense of self-worth in your children. Demonstrate what healthy relationships look like. And when they start using social media, make sure you know what sites they're on."
Another way to be aware is to report red flags. If you see a young girl with a much older man, or a minor who appears to be very uncomfortable with the older people he or she is with, you can report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to 233733 (BEFREE). The report will be routed directly to local law enforcement. Mary-Catherine suggests putting the hotline number in your phone so you're ready as soon as you see something.
"You can also look for changes in behavior," said Mary-Catherine. Is a straight-A student suddenly getting D's and F's? Is a girl you know suddenly tired all the time, or is there a sudden change in hygiene habits? Do you know a teen who suddenly has multiple cell phones? These can all be signs of recruitment and exploitation.
Present Age provides direct treatment services to human trafficking survivors who are referred by Juvenile Justice, local and federal law enforcement, schools, parents and other agencies.
Treatment services are designed to address the medical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual needs of girls ages 12-18. With leadership roles on the Charlotte Metropolitan Human Trafficking Task Force, the Cabarrus County Human Trafficking Task Force, and the North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Present Age treatment programs are integral to the recovery of survivors.
The organization provides trauma-informed, developmentally-based training and treatment for girls in their homes, whether they are living with parents, guardians, or foster parents.
Using the resources of licensed counselors, case managers, trained mentors, therapists and tutors, Present Age ushers survivors through the healing and recovery process. They even guide survivors through the court process when necessary.
"We want them to know their worthiness and that there's so much more in store for them than the exploitation they've experienced," says Mary-Catherine.
Here are two of many survivor testimonials Mary-Catherine shared with me that show the powerful impact of Present Age Ministries:
"Without Present Age, I am positive that I would not be here today."
"Present Age has given me a space where I can be myself. I now have a second family. I know that people really love me here."
HOW YOU CAN HELP
If you want more for the children and families in our city, there are a few ways to help Present Age Ministries fight against human trafficking.
You can make a tax-deductible one-time or monthly donation. $25 covers transportation costs for a survivor's treatment appointment. $50 pays for an individualized counseling session for a survivor. $200 pays for her counseling for a month, and $250 pays for an experiential learning opportunity, like horseback riding or rock climbing. Learn more at here.
The organization also accepts volunteers and offers trainings based on your area of interest. Learn more at presentageministries.org.
Additional information, statistics, and survivor stories are available at www.presentageministries.org.
Grace Kennedy is a Huntersville-based writer specializing in storytelling for nonprofits. Learn more at gracekennedy.net.