O'Fallon Progress

OTHS alumnus talks with students about human trafficking

O’Fallon Township High School alumni Molly Venzke, author of “Caged No More,” speaks to students in the Instructional Media Center at the Smiley campus Friday about how to recognize, prevent and raise awareness for human (sex) trafficking.
O’Fallon Township High School alumni Molly Venzke, author of “Caged No More,” speaks to students in the Instructional Media Center at the Smiley campus Friday about how to recognize, prevent and raise awareness for human (sex) trafficking. rkirsch@bnd.com

Returning to her hometown stomping ground, O’Fallon Township High School Alumni Molly Venzke, author of “Caged No More,” met students with full force at Milburn and Smiley OTHS campuses on Friday for multiple presentations to raise awareness about human sex trafficking.

Venzke graduated in 1988, and went on to become a teacher, pastor, author and activist living near Seattle, Wash. Her book was adapted to be made into a major motion picture as well.

“I am very excited to be back to my hometown for these events,” Venzke said.

O’Fallon Police Chief Eric Van Hook said from a law enforcement standpoint he looks forward to having lunch with Venzke and hearing what she has to share with the community.

I think it’s amazing that a former student has taken her abilities to this level and taking it to use that to provide great information about human trafficking that is a very unfortunate reality in our country.

O’Fallon Police Chief Eric Van Hook.

“I think it’s amazing that a former student has taken her abilities to this level and taking it to use that to provide great information about human trafficking that is a very unfortunate reality in our country,” Van Hook said.

It’s easy to put your head in the sand when it comes to tough issues such as human trafficking, but that wasn’t the case with Venzke — she has faced the problem head on, according to Van Hook.

“As a writer, there are many paths people can take with choosing what stories to tell and I think it’s awesome for Molly to have picked a subject like this to make us aware of,” Van Hook said.

This wasn’t just your average awareness presentation.

Knowledge is power, and by the time I’m done talking you’re going to know the signs of human trafficking so you can be prepared in the event this may happen to you or someone you know.

Molly Venzke, author and OTHS Alumni

“Knowledge is power, and by the time I’m done talking you’re going to know the signs of human trafficking so you can be prepared in the event this may happen to you or someone you know,” Venzke said.

Venzke succeeded in grabbing the attention of students with her animated body language, shocking statistics and casual, yet energetic attitude.

There are an estimated 150,000 American children at risk of falling victim to human trafficking, Venzke said.

Every one in three runaway youths are lured into prostitution with 48 hours of running away, and they are very vulnerable, making them easier targets, according to Venzke.

Did you know that St. Louis Metro area is ranked among the TOP 20 worst cities in the nation for human trafficking.

Molly Venzke

“Did you know that St. Louis Metro area is ranked among the TOP 20 worst cities in the nation for human trafficking,” Venzke revealed.

But Venzke wasn’t alone.

One of Venzke’s high school students where she teaches at Christian Faith School just south of Seattle, Wash., Jasmine Tercero, 17, was vital to Venzke’s talk with students. Tercero said she became involved with her school’s efforts with Students Against Trafficking and Sexploitation (SATS), which Venzke established two years ago.

“I’ve traveled with Mrs. Venzke to three schools so far, and my involvement started with an interest, but soon it became more about being able to make a difference in the world and help other teens my age or younger who are victims of trafficking — it all starts with awareness,” Tercero said.

Taking a deeper look, Tercero said, forced labor; bonded or debt bondage among migrant laborers; forced child labor; child soldiers, sex trafficking and child sex trafficking are just some of the types of human trafficking affecting nearly 800,000 people worldwide, and that number is mostly made up of young women, children and teens of both sexes.

This could happen to someone you know, really, this isn’t just a third-world problem anymore, it can happen to anyone across all social and economical borders.

Jasmine Tercero, a student of Venzke’s

“This could happen to someone you know, really, this isn’t just a third-world problem anymore, it can happen to anyone across all social and economical borders,” Tercero said.

Lastly, but by no means least important, (Molly) Venzke’s husband Jay Venzke, financial adviser and expert on human trafficking, appealed to the males in the audience by encouraging them to stand up against human sex trafficking by starting with curbing inappropriate social media and internet habits, like searching for pornographic images or videos, as well as not perpetuating the cycle of internet chatting with people you don’t know.

“Guys, the harsh reality here is, we are the problem because the men create the demand, and the demand is the foundation on what the industry was built. If every man said ‘no, I’m not going to pay for sex or no, I’m not going to pay for (sexual) pornography, this industry and problem would go away,” Jay said.

“The good news is — we are also the solution. Seriously, in a few years we could stop this if we just decided to make those changes. Statistics show that if a man hasn’t paid for sex by the time he’s 25 years old, the chances are he never will. And, you guys are at the stage in your life where you’re going to have some serious choices to make. You can either be part of the problem, or part of the solution.”

Students remained engaged with laughs, responses and gasps throughout Venzke’s hour-long presentation Friday at the Smiley campus.

“The leaders of these trafficking rings go for the young ones, but all of you, specifically girls, boys and teens from as early as nine or ten, but the average age an American minor enters into prostitution is 12 to 14,” Venzke said.

There are many common red flags, you just have to know what to look for, Venzke said.

“Never talk to someone you don’t know online, human traffickers prey on the vulnerable and young who are reaching out for meaningful relationships in their lives, and all they have to do is pretend they are interested and invest the time, and that one meeting is all they need to get you hooked, and the moment you trust them is enough,” Venske said.

Venzke warned the students of one common method of getting a teen or person into the clutches of a human trafficker — putting tastless, clear drugs in water, drinks or food, “so never (ingest) something from someone you don’t know.”

One common red flag Venzke focused on was the commonality of tattooed markings or numbers being branded on parts of the victim’s body, like the neckline, back or arms.

“So maybe when you’re changing for P.E. class you see it and ask about it, if the person with the marking seems to not want to talk about it or looks scared or gets angry for you seeing it, they may be a victim of human trafficking because many of these trafficking rings have their slaves branded so to speak, and usually a teen who has a tattoo is generally interested in talking about it, not deflecting it,” Venske said.

Sharing impressions of the speaker’s presentation, OTHS sophomores Abigail Byrnside and Emily Hairr shuffled out of the Instructional Media Center (IMC) at the Smiley campus with other students from various classes who attended the presentation. Byrnside told Hairr she would be more vigilant with her online behavior to avoid becoming prey to a cyber predator.

“I found it to be very insightful,” Byrnside said.

Hairr said she thought the presentation was really neat.

I didn’t realize that human trafficking was an issue here in the states, so it was an eyeopener.

Emily Hairr, OTHS sophomore

“I didn’t realize that human trafficking was an issue here in the states, so it was an eyeopener,” Hairr said.

Jennifer Lara, IMC director, said the Distinguished Speaker Series started last year, and has been a huge hit with the community and the students thus far.

“We had a holocaust survivor meet with the students, and that was so impactful that we had some really great feedback like people kept asking, ‘Please can we do this again?’”

This is a collaboration between the O’Fallon Public Library and the OTHS Library, at the Milburn campus, located at 650 Milburn School Road, and the Smiley campus at 600 South Smiley Street.

“This partnership with the O’Fallon Public Library has been so instrumental and such a great success. The cool thing is that it isn’t just a one-time speech, it’s so much more, we do multiple daytime presentations to the students at both campuses and we are having a community event at Milburn campus Friday (May 6), and on Monday, May 9 we are having two showings at the O’Fallon Wehrenberg Theater,” Lara said.

Working in tandem, Lara said she, the Milburn campus librarian and organizer Tracy von der Linden and O’Fallon Public Library adult services manager Ryan Johnson “all did a great job at tag-teaming so the events had a seamless flow.”

One focal point Lara said she hopes students learn from the presentation(s), is there is no immunity from this industry, even if the student(s) don’t become victims, they are still touched in some way by this problem.

“I hope the big takeaway for the students is to understand there is an immediacy to this issue, and I really do think it is so important because this is no longer just a global issue, but also very local too, with St. Louis, Mo. on our doorstep and other larger communities in the metro-east, the issue is woven into this network,” Lara said. “It’s here, and among them, and could happen to someone the students know, so it is so essential to spread awareness so they can recognized the signs and help prevent it.”

OTHS Colonel Chris Moulton, one of the Air Force JROTC Aeropace Science instructors, brought one of his classes to the Smiley campus presentation last Friday, and said he was astounded by the information.

“I found it to be very interesting, I mean you never really think about this (issue) in the U.S., and to hear that people lured into human trafficking pretty much disappear — is very sobering,” Moulton reflected.

Here are some indicators to help identify victims of human trafficking:

Recognizing potential red flags and knowing the indicators of human trafficking is a key step in identifying more victims and helping them find the assistance they need.

To request help or report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. Or text HELP to: BeFree (233733).

Common work and living conditions: The individual(s) in question

▪ Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes

▪ Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts

▪ Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp / manager

▪ Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips

▪ Works excessively long and/or unusual hours

▪ Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work

▪ Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off

▪ Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work

▪ High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)

Poor mental health or abnormal behavior

▪ Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid

▪ Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement

▪ Avoids eye contact

Poor physical health

▪ Lacks health care

▪ Appears malnourished

▪ Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

Lack of control

▪ Has few or no personal possessions

▪ Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account

▪ Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)

▪ Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)

Other

▪ Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address

▪ Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city he/she is in

▪ Loss of sense of time

▪ Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story

This list is not exhaustive and represents only a selection of possible indicators. Also, the red flags in this list may not be present in all trafficking cases and are not cumulative. Learn more at www.traffickingresourcecenter.org.

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