by Pat Bellingham
The Northwestern Pennsylvania Synodical Women’s Organization (“NWPA SWO”) multiplies its anti-trafficking work by partnering with two non-profits and a coalition and by engaging college students in the cause. For three years and counting, we have used the SOAP Project – Saving Our Adolescents from Prostitution – started by Theresa Flores to bring awareness about human trafficking. Flores, founder of the SOAP Project , is an author, counselor, speaker, and survivor of human trafficking. At 15-years-old she was selected, groomed, drugged, raped, and blackmailed into the life of sex slavery.
The NWPA SWO gets small bars of hotel soap, labels them with the Human Trafficking Hotline number, and places the bars in restrooms along interstates and highways, in airports, convenience stores, anywhere with a public restroom. We also have a group of women who canvas our local hotels with information on how the hotel industry can be aware and keep their properties and guests safe. In the past six months we have visited 55+ hotels in the Erie, Pa. area. Since 80% of the sex in trafficking happens in a hotel, hotels are key to promoting awareness to the public and help for the victims.
The SOAP Project isn’t just about getting bars of soap to victims, it’s about engaging the community in collaboration. This past year we have gotten assistance from Mercyhurst University students who are either in cyber security or law enforcement career paths. Those students, in turn, will take their visiting experiences, move back into their communities and, hopefully, continue to spread the word and enthusiasm for social justice. Various groups from church youth groups to the retired Sisters of St. Joseph label the soaps for us.
Recently, we have collaborated with Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT). They have a wonderful program focused on various aspects of the transportation industry – school bus drivers, over the road truckers, truck stops, aviation industry, commercial bus drivers. Their programs are well organized, industry specific, and very useful.
This past week, two of us visited eight school districts in our county. We had folders of information provided courtesy of TAT – a CD with a 20-minute training video for school bus drivers, aides, and crossing guards; a poster for the break room; and individual cards with helpful numbers on them. All the materials are also available free of charge on the TAT website. We gave the folders to either the school bus garage secretaries or the school administration office, which ever area we found first. All appreciated our efforts and assured us that they will look over the materials and use them for safety in-services and workshops. School bus drivers see children on a regular basis. They know who picks the children up and drops them off. The drivers can see if the children suddenly have suspicious tattoos or bruises or are fearful of getting off the bus. Drivers can see firsthand some of the red flags that signal children being trafficked.
In northwestern Pennsylvania we have an organized group of professionals that make up the Anti Human Trafficking Coalition of NWPA – Erie. It is a group made up of law enforcement, judicial system members, medical professionals, social service providers, educators. It meets via Zoom once per month, usually with a speaker on a pertinent topic. It is centered at Mercyhurst University. The Coalition is presently working on including Human Trafficking as a topic for the 211 County Information System. It is not designed for emergencies, just as an information resource for someone who may have questions about local services available for trafficking victims and their families.
We thank you, loving God, for groups like the SOAP Project and Truckers Against Trafficking. They are essential partners in our shared work to end human trafficking. Sustain them in this difficult work. We offer thanks for college students willing to work with us. Stir up in people everywhere righteous indignation that, working together, we can irradicate human trafficking and assist in restoring beloved community. Give the victims hope and consolation. Protect and heal them, bringing them to new life. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
SOAP project – Note: SOAP is a registered trademark and you need to follow their protocol
Missing Kids – great resources for kids, parents, teachers. They have a lot of resources for online safety, how to encourage kids to speak up if things are getting scary, dealing with sexting and cyberbullying.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – sponsors the netsmartz activities.
Patricia Bellingham, of Erie, Pa., currently serves as president of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Synodical Women’s Organization.