Andy Soper had a firm message for Kelloggsville High School students about ending the exploitation of young people in West Michigan: take action.
“Nothing changes until you make it change,” said Soper, project coordinator for outreach ministry The Manasseh Project.
Youth have power, he said during several recent one-hour informational sessions on human trafficking and sexual slavery at the high school. Students can help in several ways:
– serve as mentors and tutors for elementary- and middle-school students
– learn to recognize distress signs and respond appropriately
– stand up against objectifying behavior
– reject consumer brands that can be linked to forced labor
“Provide dignity, respect, compassion for everyone,” Soper said.
Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, his arms inked with tattoos, Soper encouraged students to speak out against exploitation, which happens more among their age group than many people realize. A longtime social worker, Soper began researching human trafficking after a child he knew was trafficked. Forced prostitution and forced labor are the most common forms of human trafficking, and both occur locally.
Soper and his wife Marcy started the Manasseh Project through Grand Rapids-based Wedgewood Christian Services more than two years ago to provide support to victims of human trafficking and empower people in West Michigan to end modern-day slavery. Six months ago they opened a residential facility for victims to receive shelter, counseling and therapy. Already, more than 20 victims have come there for help.
English teachers Bethany Hardy and Susan Faulk hosted Soper’s visit for a second time as part of their modern slavery unit to build awareness and prompt action. As part of the unit, students create projects that involve the community.
More than 300,000 children are at high risk for sexual exploitation in America, according to The National Human Trafficking Resource Center and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Runaways, children living in poverty and those who have already been abused are among several at-risk categories. Traffickers also prey on young people who, in general, seem vulnerable and responsive to suggestive comments and offers to buy them things.
The State Department estimates there are roughly 1.8 victims of human trafficking – both forced labor and sexual exploitation – for every 1,000 people in America. Going by that ratio, 2,379 estimated victims are in the West Michigan area, according to information from the Manasseh Project.
“There is a population (here),” Soper said. “My fear is that it’s bigger than I think it is. My hope is that it’s smaller … ”
Forced work the biggest problem
Additional Trafficking Information
Human Trafficking: an act of recruiting, transporting, harboring or receiving a person through force or coercion, for the purpose of exploiting them.
Source: The Manasseh Project
Labor trafficking is even more common than sex trafficking, he said. Refusing to purchase brands that can be traced back to forced labor is vital, he said. Several common consumer goods have been connected to human trafficking. The site, www.free2work.org, provides information about how these items and brands relate to trafficking and other labor abuses.
Soper said cultural influences in the media have a huge effect on people’s perception of sex, objectifying people and relationships. Axe body spray ads, for example, are effective in “making women into products” and mainstream TV and music glamorizes “pimping,” he said.
Paige Spencer, a junior, said she will carry Soper’s message forward.
“I definitely thought it was inspiring. It brought up a lot of things I wouldn’t have thought of on my own,” she said. “Little things can make a big difference, like stopping someone in the hall to help them.”
Jacob Klok, also a junior, said he is rethinking the products he uses. “I think I learned a lot. I use Axe (body spray) a lot and didn’t realize all the bad things they do.”
Sophomore Danira Stanojevic said she felt the message was in-depth and explained how people are affected emotionally and physically by traffickers.
“I will probably follow his advice and try to do something,” she said.