By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times
WASHINGTON, October 4, 2012 ─ Raising awareness for the prevalence of child sex trafficking in America is critical in the global war against human trafficking. However, audience members at community awareness events are often left feeling overwhelmed by the issue.
“What can I possibly do?” I’m often asked by those still reeling from survival stories and statistics, “How can I get involved?”
And I always answer in the same way: Become a mentor!
Mentoring is an easily accessible and effective way to prevent human trafficking in your own community. Child predators, specifically child sex traffickers, target those youth who are most vulnerable, those who lack the support and guidance needed to overcome and avoid the many challenges associated with adolescence.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children stated the following on their website:
Each year thousands of children run away from home, are forced out of their homes, or are simply abducted by their parents or guardians. The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children 2 (NISMART-2), conducted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), estimates that in 1999 more than 1,680,000 children had [such] episodes.
Some of these children leave home to escape physical or sexual abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, many end up on the streets. Without legitimate means of support and a safe place to stay, they are often victimized again through pornography, sexual exploitation, and drugs.
Connecting with troubled or at-risk youth before they run away is a key factor in the prevention of child sexual exploitation. You can make this happen by volunteering with a mentoring organization or by supporting youth-based organizations in your area. As a mentor, you will help children build self-confidence and coping skills as you explore their different interests and expose them to new ideas. You will also accomplish this simply by being there for them. As a volunteer or financial supporter of youth-based organizations, you will enable the children in your community to realize their full potential.
Born and raised in New Jersey, I often travel to the Garden State to speak and raise awareness about human trafficking. Recently, while speaking at an event in northern New Jersey, I met Carlos Lejnieks, President and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Essex, Hudson, and Union Counties.
Carlos joined BBBS in 2008 while the Newark-based organization was still undergoing changes to improve growth. The program was serving about 100 children at that time. By the summer of 2011, the program had jumped to serving over 1,000 kids, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.
Carlos, a New Jersey native, recognized early on in life the importance of mentors. Raised by a single mother, an immigrant from Ecuador, Carlos struggled to watch his hard-working mother clean the homes of upper middle-class residents. Carlos quit high school in order to get a job and help her. Luckily, a caring adult in Carlos’ life persuaded him to return to school.
This person helped Carlos realize that the best way he could help his mother was to stay in school. Carlos went on not only to graduate high school but to enroll in college. He completed his bachelor’s degree program at Brown University and then earned a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics.
Carlos is now passionate about growing his BBBS program in order to help lead other disadvantaged youth into successful futures, and I am so happy there are people in the world like him.
I remember feeling very lost and lonely that summer after eighth grade when a stranger spotted me in a crowded shopping mall and befriended me. I was desperate for a connection with someone, so desperate that I didn’t recognize the nefarious intentions behind this man’s friendship. After he promised a new life in Hollywood and convinced me to run away from home, this man forced me into a life of prostitution at the age of fourteen.
You have the power to prevent this from happening to other the children. Become involved with or donate to a child-mentoring organization like Carlos’ Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
To find a youth mentoring program in your area, I encourage you to visit www.Mentoring.org.
In a recent article listing child trafficking prevention strategies for middle school teachers, I suggested that teachers investigate their local child-focused volunteer organizations and to make this list available to students. I encourage all parents and caring adults to do the same. Please research what programs are available in your area and make those organizations known and accessible to the kids you know and love.
For troubled youth, having a relationship with a mentor could derail them from any detrimental decisions. A child or teen without any other options is vulnerable to believing a stranger who offers “a better way of life.”