The awareness and grassroots effort to combat human trafficking is gaining steam in Nebraska.
The formation of Nebraska Against Trafficking Coalition, a non-governmental organization aimed at support efforts in Nebraska and Western Iowa to fight all forms of human trafficking is an indication of a growing awareness on the issue.
Members of the coalition have held an educational forum at NebraskaWesleyanUniversity in Lincoln on Feb. 12 and also held a planning meeting at WestsideChurch in Omaha on Feb. 21 earlier this month.
Participants with the NATC are: Leticia Bonifas of Lexington, executive director of Central Nebraska Human Trafficking Outreach, Rachel Pointer with Free the People Movement, Julie Shrader with Rejuvenating Women, Cindy Hutline with Set Me Free Ministries and Jasel Cantu with the Latino American Commission.
“Being part of the Coalition will allow us to draw resources from around the state. There are folks working on research, some doing direct services, others have formed prayer groups,” Bonifas said.
She said she hopes the coalition can visit and have an event in Central Nebraska. With many human trafficking groups based in Omaha Bonifas said she wants build off of NATC’s work in Lexington. The coalition group is working on becoming a 501 (c)3 non-profit group as well, she said.
The first meeting of the group was in November of 2014 with the first goal being the creation of a type of "calling tree" database so that all of our churches and organizations would have contacts easily at their fingertips, so that they knew who to call, said Julie Shrader, president of Rejuvenating Women in Omaha.
“One of our top goals as well, is to get as many anti-trafficking and victim advocates working together. Too many organizations were working solo on the same things the rest were already doing so why not combine our efforts? I believe that we can all accomplish our end goal if we work together as a team on this issue,” Shrader said.
Another goal is to try to focus on ways to getting more restoration homes or shelters for the victims in Nebraska and even outside of the area, Shrader said. Establishing the first shelter home for survivors of human trafficking has long been a goal for Bonifas, with her Give BIG Lexington funds being set aside for that project, she said.
Creating awareness about the prevalence of human trafficking in Nebraska was key, Bonifas said.
“Awareness is growing at high rate. More folks want to get involved and be a part of fighting against this issue. A person has to acknowledge human trafficking exists, educate themselves on the issue and get involved,” Bonifas said.
Shrader said she recently spoke with a nurse in Omaha that had no idea human trafficking happened in Omaha.
“So many people that I run into just don’t want to believe that it happens in their hometown and that prostitution is a choice they make,” Shrader said.
“They don’t realize that they are one in the same and prostitutes are forced into this lifestyle and drugs are forced onto them so they become dependent on them,” Shrader said.
A long-term goal of Bonifas and something the coalition is helping her prepare for is getting involved in every aspect of the support structure for human trafficking related issues.
“My goal is to get involved in every area. Whether it be rescue and/or restoration of an individual. We had talked about a local hotline. I suggested a statewide hotline. This will allow callers to be streamlined to the nearest service provider,” Bonifas said.
“We know there are great things happening in the Eastern part of the state and I hope to move those services to central Nebraska as well,” Bonifas said.
Stephanie Olson – ex. director of the set me free project
Another educational organization that’s part of the coalition, The Set Me Free Project began because members of the community became aware that human trafficking is a very real problem in Nebraska, said Stephanie Olson, executive director of the group.
“We understand that when we bring awareness and education to kids and their parents, traffickers lose their power,” Olson said. Her Omaha based organization provides educational speakers to schools, youth groups and communities to raise awareness about human trafficking.
Olson said her organization’s desire is to educate in every single city and town in this state and elsewhere about human trafficking.
“We are a traveling organization, so we will travel anywhere to speak to your community schools, youth, industries, churches, educators, leaders, and parents. We want to see youth and adults recognizing the ploys of the traffickers, but even more importantly, we want to see our youth and adults value themselves and other,” Olson said.
Understanding the importance of human dignity could lead to a culture of respect for human life where no person is treated as subhuman, Olson said.
“We at The Set Me Free Project have a couple of goals in working with the NATC. One of those goals is to learn from others who are actively working on the front lines and glean from their experience and knowledge,” Olson said.
Her group’s other goal in working with NATC is to support other organizations and find incredible support from the same organizations, Olson said.
“When we work together, it’s amazing what we can do to fight this horrific travesty. Of course, our main goal is to not only fight human trafficking together, but to end it,” Olson said.