by Patricia Bellingham
Our Women of the ELCA synod is committed to the organization’s initiative of Raising Up Healthy Women and Girls. As part of our mission, we have been working with the S.O.A.P. Project (Saving Our Adolescents from Prostitution) distributing small soaps with the National Human Trafficking hotline number (1-888-373-7888) on them.
We place soap in restrooms along highways and interstates. The goal is two-fold: to raise awareness to the general public that there is an avenue of help and to put the helpline in places that might be frequented by a teen in trouble.
… there are actually formal business plans on how to set up and operate a human trafficking business.
Also, we have partnered with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwest Pennsylvania to collect data on the number of restrooms that have the correct informational posters in the right locations in Pennsylvania. This data is taken to Harrisburg, our state capital, to encourage lawmakers and government agencies to follow through on best practices for information and awareness dealing with human trafficking. It also lets our lawmakers know Women of the ELCA is actively engaged and positively impacting the issue.
Second largest criminal industry
“After drug dealing, human trafficking is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second largest criminal industry in the world today, and it is the fastest growing,” according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security.
Theresa L. Flores, founder of the S.O.A.P. Project and an author and activist and survivor, visited our synod in Northwest Pennsylvania at Luther Memorial Church, Erie, last October. She provided us with important information about human trafficking and offered goals and solutions on putting an end to it.
Theresa said we should map hotels in our area and request that management allows employees to be trained in recognizing trafficking victims. She also suggested hotels should develop a code of conduct and establish policies and procedures about human trafficking and provide information to travelers.
Approximately 30 women and guests from our synod and community attended this three-hour training. Five women signed up for the second phase of the program. That includes visiting area hotels to post missing children posters, provide information and training to hotel employees, and support and partner with local agencies, law enforcement and nonprofits engaged in ending human trafficking.
The work continues
Today (January 10), Bryan Prior with the Crime Victim Center, Erie, and Betsy Wiest, social justice coordinator with the Sisters of St. Joseph NWP, are coordinating a public forum on human trafficking at the Blasco Library in Erie. Our synodical women’s organization is a designated charter of the S.O.A.P. Project, and I will represent Women of the ELCA and talk about our work with the project.
Northwestern Pennsylvania’s SWO has been purchasing cases of soap with private donations and Thrivent action dollars for more than a year. The training by Theresa enhanced our leadership in the project, helped us develop community partnerships and extend our mission to youth. We thank our synod and the Good Idea Grants program for financing our project.
Patricia Bellingham is president of the Northwestern Pennsylvania synodical women’s organization. Learn more about what Women of the ELCA is doing to end human sex trafficking here. Read Sarah Carson’s article, “To save just one life,” in the January/February issue of Gather to see what other Women of the ELCA participants are doing to end human trafficking.
Feature photo is of compassion notes for trafficking victims written by participants at the ELCA Youth Gathering last summer.