In 1980, a grassroots swell of concerned citizens arose across America and formed a nonprofit organization to stop drunk driving. The ripple effect changed the country’s attitude about mixing drink with driving from laissez faire to one of vigilance. Today, awareness is growing about another endemic societal problem — human trafficking — and in Columbia, Lighthouse for Life is at the forefront of the fight.
In 2014 Andrea Wind heard about human trafficking in a sermon at her church. “I didn’t realize what a problem it was in the United States, so unfortunately I hadn’t taken the time to look into what it was. I started to educate myself, to pray, and to journal,” says Andrea. Like Andrea had been, most of the general population is unaware that trafficking is a $9.8 billion growing domestic industry, including in South Carolina. Out of Andrea’s vision, and after many determined years of development, Lighthouse for Life was born. Its mission statement is “to raise awareness about the realities of human trafficking while restoring victims to wholeness.” Their lighthouse emblem, with currents of water moving along, represents the powerful ripple effect when individuals become concerned, educated, and involved in this pervasive problem.
Employees and volunteers of Lighthouse for Life are achieving this through many strategies and components such as free education and training. Heather Pounds, survivor care coordinator, explains that Lighthouse for Life acts as a broker to the community by helping women in crisis find other resources they need.
She says, “We may get a call and determine a woman needs sexual trauma services or other therapists. We help them find mentorship and support groups. We are joining up with a program called Ending the Game, which is an intervention curriculum for victims of commercial sexual exploitation.” Most recently, Lighthouse has opened a long-term residential home for survivors ages 12 to 21 years old. This safe house is named Karis Home.
Human trafficking is the buying, selling, or trading of human beings. It is a form of modern-day slavery. The United Nations defines the practice as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation. Horrifically, organizations like Lighthouse for Life often confront the challenge of victims not realizing that what is being done to them is illegal and has a name — human trafficking. They don’t know the definition. Thus, often they do not realize that it is their right to seek help. And if they do begin to understand the nature of the crimes being committed upon them, where can they go for assistance?
Lighthouse for Life’s COO Lisa Kejr recognizes that this is a topic from which many people would prefer to turn away. After giving a presentation to Southern Early Childhood Association, she received feedback that it was the hardest presentation to which most of them had ever listened. Lisa says, “Yes, it’s heavy. Yes, it’s overwhelming. Yes, it’s dark. But by helping people become aware, we’re starting to change the statistics in our favor.”
As reports increase, the numbers likewise increase, but that doesn’t correlate with the problem increasing. “Those numbers, representing individuals, were already true, but now they are being exposed,” Lisa explains. “By listening, you’re changing the percentage of those who are victimized in your sphere of influence. The chances of people getting the help they need are greatly increased because that many more people have joined the fight to look for the signs and make a phone call and be part of the solution.”
The urgency to educate the general public, as well as service providers, about signs of abuse heightened for Lisa even after she had begun working for Lighthouse. When she was doing an “aware event for youth,” a young person came forward afterward and said she thought what had happened to her fit the definition of trafficking. The case was confirmed. Lisa had been this child’s teacher during the time of her abuse and had not realized her student was being victimized.
How Does Trafficking Happen?
Every human shares the universal needs of love and acceptance, home, food, water, and shelter. Individuals’ lack in any of these categories increases their vulnerability to coercion. Along comes a “pretender,” such as a boyfriend; older family member; father; or a new, friendly face at the school or online. A “provider” offers to meet the need by giving fashionable clothes, cell phones, purses, parties, and other enticements. A “promiser” grooms his or her target and confidently assures that the individual will have access to his or her specific desires or goals, such as a dream job, a glamorous lifestyle, travel, and more. Eventually the “protector” uses physical power or intimidation, and by this time “protection” has become control. The victim, thinking his or her needs are being met and a new future is on the horizon, is now in the control of the “punisher,” who employs violence and threats toward the victim and/or the victim’s loved ones to maintain this status.
The greater the vulnerabilities are in a person’s life circumstances, the greater the danger is of becoming a target. Victims include South Carolina citizens, foreign nationals, and males and females of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Sometimes the grooming process is skipped and blackmail or coercion is the vehicle used to gain sudden control.
In Columbia, a number of years ago, a 17-year-old from a two-parent home was looking forward to college and seeking scholarship offers. She left her gated community to attend a party. She partook of substances that she would not normally have taken, and within days a stranger called her home and told her he had compromising pictures of her. He asked her what colleges would want her if they saw these? What would her father’s boss think? And what about her church youth leader?
The caller told her that if she did this one thing, these pictures would go away. Out of a sense of shame and her desire to protect her family and her future, she said she would. She did not tell anyone. She went where they told her to go. The unimaginable, to her, happened. She was gang raped and videoed.
For a time period, the traffickers called her home, talked to her parents, and asked to speak to her. She sneaked out, came back, showered, and went to school. Her demeanor changed, she slept a lot, her grades dropped. Her concerned parents thought it was teen stress. Would she get into her dream college?
One day she didn’t come home. Her parents called the police. She was listed as a “runaway.” A law enforcement officer sensed something was dreadfully amiss. They found her two blocks away in a hotel. The next day her traffickers were going to move her out of the state.
Lisa’s question to everyone she can reach is, “How can we be the safe person who our loved ones and those in our sphere of influence need? We do this by communicating that we all mess up, and if there is a mistake that we are here for you, and we’ll get through this together.”
Karis Home: From Vision to Reality
A principal goal that visionary and founder Andrea Wind had was to create a safe home, and Karis Home is the realization of the efforts of many individuals, businesses, and churches. Karis is the Greek word for “grace,” and one of the sayings around the Lighthouse for Life office is “Grace wins.”
To create a safe house, Lighthouse employees went to work defining how best to meet the needs of survivors of trafficking. They obtained nonprofit status and met state and federal codes and regulations, some of which were being defined and redefined right along with the birth of this first safe home for trafficked girls (their safe house is specifically for minor females, not adult women) in South Carolina. They consulted with survivors to hear their perspectives. They received training in conferences such as Trauma Informed Care. They visited safe homes in other areas of the country whose staff enthusiastically shared valuable experience and advice.
Director of Karis Home Linzy Laird is overjoyed about the realization of the safe house. She says, “We’ve had the FBI and DSS come and advise us, and they’ve said that the house is good to go and the program is solid. We are grateful for their involvement in Karis Home.”
Linzy’s interest in devoting her professional life to Karis Home began with questions. While working for another organization that serves women in crisis, she and her co-workers became troubled at times because they sensed that they were seeing women who had been trafficked. What were the signs? What were the solutions? Jen Thompson, CEO of Lighthouse for Life, came and gave a presentation that answered all their questions and more.
Linzy explains the surprising lack of training and information for such a frontline issue. “So many people are working hard to improve social issues. This ministry handles this, that medical entity handles that, and people aren’t always looking for the overlap. But when a problem like trafficking comes to light, we all have to do something about it. Everyone needs this education; otherwise the signs will go unrecognized.”
In South Carolina, the average age range of a trafficking victim is 14 to 16, so Karis Home provides help for women from ages 12 to 21 years old. Says Linzy, “Our heart is for each girl to stay as long as she needs to receive healing in order to transition back into society well.”
Along with the myriad of provisions within Karis Home, the security system is for the protection of the residents and the staff. Referrals come from DSS, and a careful screening process is used. Often even these girls who have already been confirmed as being trafficked are still in denial.
Linzy says, “A victim, at the onset, is usually not going to view us as a hero rescuing her. Her perspective will often be that she has been taken from her ‘protector’ who sincerely loves her. Yes, she knows he is involved with many other girls, but she is the special one in his life.” If the victim is still in contact with her traffickers, that is a danger to her, the other residents, the program, and the workers.
Linzy believes God has put the Lighthouse for Life and Karis Home team together. “I recognize the weight of my role and the responsibility I carry, but I’m putting that on the Lord’s shoulders. Our success is dependent on us being obedient to what God has called us to. Our role is not to change their lives — that’s His job. We entrust this ministry and the residents to the Lord.”
LighthouseforLife.org offers links to and names of both local and national organizations that are involved in the fight to expose Americans to the signs of trafficking. Included on the site are links to past presentations and a place to request free training for your sphere of influence. Resources about what action steps a person can take are also available.