Human trafficking is a global problem that reaches into the Lehigh Valley.
Several local organizations are trying to raise awareness and support victims of this crime.
Lehigh Valley Anti-Trafficking Collaborative members include Aspire to Autonomy, Bethlehem Rotary, Bloom, Crime Victims Council of the Lehigh Valley, Marsy’s Law for Pennsylvania, Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST), and Truth for Women.
The group is sponsoring Lehigh Valley Anti-Trafficking Week, which will run for 9 days beginning Nov. 1. The campaign will consist of daily events designed to raise awareness about the issue.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as the acquisition of a person by means of deception or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation like prostitution or pornography, forced labor, domestic servitude, forced criminal activity, forced marriage, or organ removal.
There is no official estimate of the number of victims of this crime in the U.S. but the Polaris Project, a nongovernmental organization that works to combat and prevent modern-day slavery and human trafficking, states its National Human Trafficking Hotline has received 49,000 calls in the last 10 years.
There may be hundreds of thousands of exploitations nationally that are never reported, according to a Polaris Project report.
Shellie, a Lehigh Valley resident who asked not to have her full name disclosed, said she began drinking alcohol at 12 years old and later moved on to harder drugs.
Hers is not a story of being kidnapped and shipped overseas. Instead, her exploitation came close-at-hand, she said.
She said she found herself homeless and getting involved in unhealthy relationships, where she was abused, made to feel worthless, and expected to prostitute herself.
“If I didn’t do what I was told, I’d get beat up,” Shellie said. “I was always in a relationship where I was expected to go out in the street and stand on the corner.”
She eventually broke the hold of her exploiters and reached out to a rehabilitation program in Allentown. She has been sober for 6 months and participating in a Bloom recovery program.
“I feel wonderful about myself, now,” Shellie said. “They’ve rallied around me and taught me that I am not a piece of garbage.”
Carol Anderson, executive director of Bloom, which is based in Bangor, said it is important that victims of forced labor or sexual exploitation understand that there is help for them. The campaign is an important first step in spreading the word about this issue, she said.
“The trauma of human trafficking is extensive,” Anderson said. “The difficulty of addiction with sex trafficking makes it nearly impossible to get out on your own.”
The campaign launches on Nov. 1 with an evening of storytelling and music at 7 p.m. at the St. Luke’s University Hospital’s Doctor’s Pavilion Laros Auditorium. This event features Jennifer Clinger, a speaker, author and survivor of human trafficking.
Other daily events include art workshops where people will be able to express their feelings through guided art activities; public participation sidewalk sand art projects; coffee shop discussions; and a viewing of the documentary “From Liberty to Captivity” at 12 p.m. at SteelStacks in the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema on Nov. 9.
A full schedule of events can be found online at www.lvantitraffickingweek.com.
Anderson advised any victims of human trafficking to contact Bloom at 570-977-0600 or the Polaris Project hotline at 888-373-7888.
John Best is a freelance contributor to lehighvalleylive.com. Find lehighvalleylive.com on Facebook.