June 19, 2024

Anti Human Trafficking Advocates fight to raise awareness

On Saturday, Brenda Long is coming home to Newton with a message she wants to share with the community.

Since experiencing a spiritual awakening in 2015, Long has devoted herself to fighting human trafficking, and she’s organized an event in Newton designed to increase awareness about what she says is a growing problem. Long, founder of the Garden Gate Ranch, said raising awareness about human trafficking is the first step in confronting the problem.

“In 2015, I had a real awareness of human trafficking and what it was. It pierced my heart,” Long said. “I knew it was something that I couldn’t turn my back on.”

Like many, Long said she didn’t realize at first what a significant problem human trafficking represented, or how widespread the issue is. Like many, she said she assumed things like that didn’t happen in the United States, or they were problems that affected big cities across the country. Long, a former foster parent, said looking back, it’s easy to see where she missed the signs.

“I started to see some signs of vulnerabilities of children that had been in home,” Long said. “It made me start to question things, maybe they’d been victims.”

Long cited a recent study that shows 85 percent of human trafficking victims were United States citizens, and only two percent of all victims find true freedom. Determined to confront the issue head on, she started a charitable organization to help victims of human trafficking. That organization, the Garden Gate Ranch, is a place where she someday hopes to be able to shelter victims and help them put their lives back together. Volunteer Barb Ranck echoed Long’s statements, offering signs parents can watch for if they suspect their child may be a target.

“People don’t want to talk about sex trafficking,” Ranck said. “When we’re talking about the victimization of young people and women, it’s just hard to think that there’s people in the world like this, but it’s not going to go away if we don’t acknowledge this.”

Parents need to make sure they’re educating their children about the dangers of human trafficking, she said. According to Ranck, the average age of entry into human trafficking in the United States is between 12-14 years of age. Checking your child’s online activity and making sure children are aware of how predators operate can help prevent the spread of human trafficking, she said. Social media and widespread access to cell phones among teens make it easier for predators to “groom” children.

“If you have teens with phones and they don’t have the guardrails or the mindset to understand who might be grooming them, people are trying to find out what their vulnerabilities are so they can manipulate them, it’s a dangerous thing,” Ranck said.

Fighting human trafficking means staying vigilant, and Long is quick to correct people who don’t think a problem exists in their community. Long says it’s far more widespread than most people realize. Just last month Long said she was contacted by a woman in Jasper County who was seeking assistance. After losing her job and her apartment, the woman moved in with a man she thought was her friend. After he placed her on Backpage, an online classified ad service well known for allowing prostitution solicitations, the woman called Long, asking for assistance. After Long helped the woman find a safe place to relocate, she told Long she’d considered suicide.

“I just realized in my heart how underground this is, how prevalent it is,” Long said. “There’s so many people that need a safe place to get off the streets and recover.”

Saturday’s forum, which will feature a number of speakers, including a retired law enforcement officer, a foster parent who’s worked with child victims of trafficking and a victim isn’t the first time Long has been in Jasper County to raise awareness about the issue. Last month, the organization held a screening of an anti-human trafficking documentary at the Capitol II Theatre in Newton, and Long said she’s proud to be able to contribute to the community she grew up in.

“This is home, I just want my community that helped me raise my children help me keep other children safe,” she said.

While raising awareness is one goal, Long also hopes to spread the word about the Garden Gate Ranch, she’s looking for fundraising to get her mission off the ground. She estimated that she’d need to raise nearly $250,000 to get the shelter off the ground, but she said early fundraising returns have her convinced her goal is attainable. She’s hoping to be able to provide a place for six women and their children to get off the streets and feel safe. If she can change a single life or help parents and community members spot the warning signs of human trafficking, it’s worth it, Long said.

“We want people to know what it is, not to be afraid, but to be aware,” Long said. “If we can save one person from being trapped into this we’ve done a great job.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or ddolmage@newtondailynews.com