HACKETTSTOWN, N.J. – The walk into a New Jersey hotel takes Stephanie Smith for walk down a very dark memory lane.
“I walked into a lot of those hotels and I didn’t really get to walk out,” she said.
When she was 21 years old, Smith became a victim of human trafficking. It started with a job at a strip club where she met a man who offered to take her out to dinner and let her stay at his home. He also bought her new clothes and drugs.
“He introduced me to harder drugs and I had built up a bill with him and he introduced me to Back Page and told me that was how I was going to pay him back,” said Smith.
It wasn’t until she finally found access to a phone and called her father that the cycle was broken.
“Somebody cared about me so I’m going to care about the next person,” said Smith.
That’s why she’s volunteering with the Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution (S.O.A.P.) Project.
“Looking back, a bar of soap would have helped me in my worst moment,” said Theresa Smith, founder of the S.O.A.P. Project, which was launched with the help and funding of CAN in 2009.
CAN “empowers church and community to do abolition including prevention, detection, action, advocacy, and survivor care. We retrofit existing services to serve survivors. Where no services exist, we work collaboratively to create those services,” according to its website.
Flores is also a survivor. That’s why she started the S.O.A.P. Project, which labels bars of soap with the National Human Trafficking hotline number and distributes the soap to hotels and motels.
“Many times the survivor will go into the bathroom afterwards, shut the door, wash up and she will see that number,” said Flores.
“That time in the bathroom is the only time you get to be by yourself,” said Smith.
Volunteers with the S.O.A.P. Project also hand out missing children posters to hotel front desks and a packet with warning signs of human trafficking.
“We’ve had a team that talked to the front desk staff, looked at our missing children poster and said she’s in here right now, she just checked in 15 minutes ago with an older guy,” said Flores.
The volunteers, many of whom are survivors, say it’s their responsibility to rescue these victims and raise awareness.
“We think, in our country, that prostitution is something people choose to do, nobody wants to do that,” said Flores.
“No one wants to do this,” reiterated survivor Jamie Vargas.
Volunteers with the group say big events, like Musikfest, can be great for the local economy by drawing thousands to the area, but can also increase the demand for sex for sale at local hotels.
“These women now have a chance just like I did,” said Smith.
The S.O.A.P. Project is always looking for volunteers and runs solely off of donations. Visit the project’s website for more information.