"Because I was going to school and functioning, I thought that I was surviving. "
It is an amazonian journey to eliminate human trafficking. According to the International Labour Organization, approximately 11.4 million women and girls are trafficked annually across the globe. Additionally, approximately 32 billion dollars is being profited through trafficking. In her tenth year, Theresa Flores, Founder of TraffickFree is exploring innovative ways to empower victims of human trafficking, hoping to speed up the process of redemption and healing. In a Lean In Ohio interview, Theresa reveals what led to sharing her personal story of survival in the recent years, after being a victim of trafficking so many years ago.
Tune in to listen to the interview>>Listen to "Interview with Theresa Flores, Founder of TraffickFree" on Spreaker.
Lean In Ohio: How did the desire to launch the organization TraffickFree come about?
Theresa Flores: I went to a conference 10 years ago and learned about human trafficking and had never known that that was what it was called and that it happened to me. And there I was, a professional woman, successful in my own right. I am also a social worker and have a master’s degree. I knew at that moment that we really needed to start raising awareness and educating people about human trafficking [while keeping in mind], that my own daughter was turning the age of when it had happened to me. I realized we did not have sufficient laws against it, and so that motivated me to start TraffickFree and try to change what was going on.
Lean In Ohio: The initiative S.O.A.P works to educate communities about trafficking and attempts to alleviate human trafficking in high-risk areas. Through S.O.A.P’s outreach, it provides bars of soap for certain hotels and motels accompanied by a toll-free hotline number for victims facing trafficking. What sort of long-term projection do you have for this program?
Theresa Flores: If someone told me ten years ago that I would still be doing this I would have thought they were crazy. I initially thought that we could eradicate human trafficking within two years and unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. This year would be our seventh super bowl outreach that we've done. Each year, the number of volunteers coming out increases which show us that people really care about this and they really want to do something about it. The number of hotels that are accepting the soap with the hotline number has been increasing. Unfortunately, there are just as many missing kids as there was seven years ago. And trafficking, I believe is increasing. So if I had to project in the future, I would like to see hotels coming up with their own initiatives and what they can do in their own hotel property to fight this and everybody is trained on this. It is such a huge problem that every entity and every organization and business need to get on the same page.
Lean In Ohio: What sort of outreach are you doing in the state of Ohio?
Theresa Flores: We are still doing our Soap Outreach and are organizing awareness events. Also, I work with Grace Haven and we received a grant from the Department of Youth Services that allowed me to go into any school in the state of Ohio and offer them a free in-service… I can speak to teachers, administrators, even more importantly; I can speak to the whole student body. I can teach these kids what this look like or who you talk to when something like this is happening and how would you recognize it when it is happening to a friend. So that is a really amazing thing. We just received a grant that will allow us to hold a human trafficking video contest and film festival. We are opening it up to Ohio high school or college students and asking them to provide a ten-minute video on what do they think human trafficking is. People who train and teach about human trafficking will be able to use those resources.
Lean In Ohio: Potential trafficked victims have no one face or background. It could be anyone. What sort of red flags or warning signs should a parent look for in children who might be in danger? Or are there signs or triggers?
Theresa Flores: Definitely look for a change in their demeanor. If they were an outgoing and bubbly kid before and now they're jumpy, depressed and anxious, if they change friends, and if they're now going out and hanging out with older people, especially guys who are using drugs and alcohol, grades dropping or running away a lot, they are coming up missing and not telling you where they’ve been, or if they are coming in with new clothing, new items that you know you did not but for them, those are a few to look for.
Lean In Ohio: What keeps you focused and moving forward to do this kind of work?
Theresa Flores: I meet people every day that tell me that this happening to someone they know. That keeps me motivated. I met a lady that said that this kind of put the pieces together in a puzzle for her. She believed that this happened to her when she was younger and didn't know it was called human trafficking. Recently, I did a talk for a bunch of nurses and a woman and her husband came forward and said that they think that this is happening to their 16-year-old daughter and wanted to talk to somebody. I feel so blessed to be able to talk to talk to them and help them through that.
Lean In Ohio: For the many women out there who have experienced some sort of sexual violence in their lifetime whether it was harassment, assault or abuse as a minor or as an adult, what piece of advice would you lend them?
Theresa Flores: Try to find healing. For a long time, I think that I survived thinking that because I was going to school and functioning, I thought that I was surviving. Yet, you have to get counseling to become a survivor. It's really important to do more. We do not want to bury what's happened to us. It's hard to look at it, examine it and think about it. But it really will help in the long run. For people that have been sexually abused or raped, telling somebody about it is important. I'm a firm believer that we need to go after these perpetrators because we know that they are doing this over and over again. As hard as it is to prosecute and seek out law enforcement and someone for help, it really is for the best because we need to put these guys away for this.