By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
NEWTON — Retired teachers Lynn Keller and Linda Pierce, along with other members of the Sacred Heart Parish Social Action Commission, hope to educate the Newton community about the issue of human trafficking.
While they don’t yet know the specifics of how that will happen, they are eager to make a difference.
“Nobody deserves to be treated with less than full dignity,” Keller said. “There are so many vulnerable people. It is not right for anyone to prey on that. To follow Catholic social teaching you have to be on the lookout to keep your fellow man safe.”
She said there is potential for human trafficking to occur in Newton, since it is located just off Interstate 80.
Keller and Pierce first learned about human trafficking during a breakout session at the Iowa Institute for Social Action in 2010. The presenter was Nora Dvorak, founder of Attacking Trafficking and sister of Sacred Heart pastor Father William Reynolds.
Keller said she and Pierce left the conference eager to learn more about the issue. “When we first heard about it, we were shocked. That’s the response a lot of people (had).”
Pierce said, “It’s a billion-dollar business, but nobody really knows or talks about it.”
The first thing the women did was further educate themselves about human trafficking, particularly the risk factors. Keller said, “A lot of people see this as a van driving up and snatching the kid, which we have found isn’t necessarily the way it works.… Traffickers tend to befriend (people who are emotionally vulnerable), offer modeling jobs, get them in their clutches, and have a grooming period where they try to gain their confidence.”
Pierce was particularly troubled to learn that about 30 percent of missing children become part of the sex trafficking industry.
While a majority of victims are girls, young boys are also victimized. “It’s scary to me,” she said.
The women discussed their findings with the parish social action commission and from there began to raise awareness by putting articles in the bulletin and purchasing books for the parish library.
The commission didn’t stop there. Members hoped to take their efforts beyond the church walls and get others in the community involved. “The discussion (was), ‘Where do we go from here?’” Keller said.
Last year, they contacted Lieutenant Wes Breckenridge of the Newton Police Department, who suggested the idea of having a human trafficking awareness evening in Newton. With the help of Breckenridge, the commission booked Mike Ferjak, director of the Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, to give a presentation late last year. They invited community leaders to attend, including the Newton police chief, a county attorney, a Department of Human Services representative and a school representative. About 12 people attended.
A follow-up meeting took place in early February; the group invited representatives from the interstate truck stop, an interstate motel and the local speedway. Another meeting will take place in March.
While Keller said the initial hope was to get a community-wide planning group together to organize a large awareness event in Newton, the community group is still exploring its options. The interim plan is to work on educating three specific groups: schools, churches and businesses near Interstate 80.
The fledgling group does have an unofficial slogan: “Newton Says No to Human Trafficking.” Pierce said, “We don’t want Newton to be a place where we accept (human trafficking).”
Keller said the process of formally establishing a human trafficking awareness group in Newton could be a long one, but she is encouraged by the interest community members have shown thus far in bringing attention to human trafficking. “It’s the whole two feet of social justice in action, to make people aware so they don’t unknowingly find themselves in the situation of being a victim.”
Become a shepherd
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops encourages Catholics to become a“SHEPHERD” (Stop Human Trafficking and Exploitation. Protect, Help, Empower and Restore Dignity). Mass intentions, prayer cards, toolkits and other resources can be found at http://www.usccb.org/about/anti-trafficking-program/become-a-shepherd-tool-kit.cfm.