LEBANON — Many think of sex trafficking or slavery as something done in a faraway country or across state lines, but the nonprofit organization Purchased is working to educate and raise awareness of the problem right here in the Indianapolis area.
The founder of Purchased, Jessica Evans, visited Nepal in 2007 and met survivors of trafficking as they learned how to make soaps, jewelry and other items.
“I got to see face-to-face what I had been learning about, and for me, that was something really important. I was a teacher and was used to having kiddos in my classroom from hard backgrounds, but I thought there’s something I should do here,” Evans said.
She began working with friends, speaking at churches and women’s groups, hosting an awareness concert and raising funds to combat the issue but after the 2012 Super Bowl hosted in Indianapolis, Evans realized a focus on Indiana was desperately needed.
“The Super Bowl really opened our eyes,” Evans said. “Trafficking looks different than what people think. We don’t want to just focus on global trafficking, because large events like the Super Bowl and people and places like taxi drivers, hotel employees, gas station employees are where people (if educated and aware) might identify trafficking.”
Evans said most believe trafficking is moving young people from one place to another, often being exploited sexually. In fact, any time someone is exploited and another person is profiting, it’s called trafficking.
Pimps are guilty of trafficking. If a young girl has run away from home and someone offers her a place to stay in exchange for sex — it’s trafficking.
And Evans says it’s happening in almost every town across the United States.
“One missing piece that we noticed was in the midst of case managers, therapists, housing and more, once the girl turns 18, they’re on their own. There’s a gap there. So, we began a mentoring program about three years ago for survivors under the age of 24,” Evans said.
They match a volunteer mentor with a young victim (15 so far) and the pair meets in person twice per month and talk regularly as the volunteer serves as the constant in the victim’s life.
Mentees come from surrounding recovery facilities in Boone, Marion and other counties. Once they’ve completed an in-house program, outside resources are needed to help them stay the course.
“It’s just someone to be consistent and healthy; pick up the phone when they call, model good life skills and more. Some of the girls are working toward getting their GED or their driver’s license. We have regular training sessions for mentors, and this is the first time for Purchased, that we have more mentees than mentors to match them,” Evans said.
It’s not easy being a mentor, she explained.
“There’s a statistic that it takes so many times for a victim to leave their perpetrator for good. They are often in love with their perpetrator and even through exploitation, the situation feels normal and leaving that environment is unknown,” Evans said. “So it’s not uncommon when you see a victim leave and come back, leave and come back. But we’ve seen the other side too, when it’s made a difference when the mentor remained there for them.”
Purchased also provides a 10-week program for at-risk 12- to 18-year-olds. They teach young victims what healthy relationships look like, what human trafficking is and how to identify people that can be trusted.
“We want to empower them with information and give them advocacy tools,” Evans said. “It’s great to see the light bulbs turn on and they can identify it for themselves.”