Volunteers working to raise awareness about sex trafficking here in Western North Carolina are using bars of soap as part of a new strategy to reach out to victims. BPR’s Helen Chickering explains.
The buzz of conversation and busy hands filled the reception hall at New Life Community Church in North Asheville. Julie Murray of Canton was among dozens of volunteers who were labelling bars of soap with a help hotline number and packing them into boxes destined for local hotels.
"So anybody who is in a hotel and is being used for sex trafficking, like minor children to prostitution, that when they go to the bathroom and use the soap – they see hotline number,” says Canton.
The event, hosted by the local faith based nonprofit Life 107 Ministries, is an outreach activity started by the national SOAP project – which stands for Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution, the brainchild of sex trafficking survivor Theresa Flores.
"Because I have been left in a motel as a victim, I knew that I needed to talk to somebody, but nobody that I knew to talk to about what I was going through, “ says Flores, “and I’ve met a lot of other survivors who’ve told me the only time they were alone, was in the bathrooms, so that’s why I chose soap.”
“They happen in open public but they are hard to detect,” says Andrew Murray , the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. Murray says because human trafficking is so hard to detect the Department of Justice conducts trafficking awareness training with a number of professional organizations, including the hospitality industry.
“Wherever there is big tourism especially big - large events - and those that tend to be male dominated, there is an opportunity for traffickers to bring in those and especially minor victims. So those in the hotel industry, those that are around those type of events they should be looking, and be aware that there’s a possibility. Certainly if they see something that makes them extremely uncomfortable, in a relationship, or contact between two individuals, they should notify the authorities, tell them what they’ve seen and what they’re concerned about.”
Organizers of this event say they are hopeful the labelled soaps will supplement those efforts – by reaching those hard to detect victims. In 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received nearly 200 calls related to sex trafficking in North Carolina. It’s not known how many of those calls originated in Western North Carolina.