By Rick Kern
Among the most disturbing criminal trends to find its way into the nation’s headlines, the heartbreak of human trafficking has swelled to epidemic proportion. It is regarded as a form of modern slavery and has become so pervasive that its unmitigated evil has grown into a global as well as national conversation. In fact, framing this abhorrent blight as emblematic of Jeremiah 17:9 is not only realistic, but it may well be a godly responsibility, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”
While striving to add enough defining features to the unthinkable to make it thought provoking, the broad strokes employed by statisticians, social engineers, politicians, and other “talking heads,” cannot really help one taste the salt in God’s tears for victims of human trafficking. Its victims often endure physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their captors, leading to health problems, mental illness, and addictions. Thus, the need for professional intervention and treatment among liberated victims is great. In other words, you can take the person out of the circumstances right away, but you can’t take the circumstances out of the person the same way.
Human trafficking was not readily acknowledged by federal and state governments from a legal standpoint until Congress enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). The TVPA stood as a landmark legal effort, making it the first comprehensive legislation to address human trafficking. It specified enhanced penalties for human trafficking crimes and provided special service programs to provide assistance to victims. Since then there has been some serious forward motion as our nation begins to grapple with a cottage industry that has gone corporate seemingly overnight.
For example, in 2007 New York State passed its first law against human trafficking. In doing so it found itself among the steadily growing number of states that recognize “slavery” still exists in the land of the free through sex and labor trafficking. And though our legal and political progress is formidable, human trafficking remains a global problem. Some statistics advise that nearly 30 million people are victims of both sex and labor trafficking. Additionally, some data suggests that as many as 15,000 victims of human trafficking are brought into the United States each year.
And while members of Congress struggle to gain their political footing on “the Hill” in pursuit of legislative counterplots to human trafficking, there are others who wage war in spiritual, as opposed to political, battlegrounds. Among those who find themselves on the spiritual side is a group called Angels of Mercy (AOM). Based in Rochester, New York, AOM is helmed by Mary Jo Colligan, its Founder and President, and her husband Joe, Co-Founder and Vice President.
The couple established AOM to extend unconditional love and help women and girls find hope while achieving freedom, dignity, and restoration. After much thought and prayer, and upon exploring several programs that help women who struggle with life-controlling issues, they created a Christian-based organization that would serve women and help them to overcome their individual struggles. Their “hands-on” model allows AOM to reach out to women of all ages who have been affected by life-controlling issues such as violence against women, drug, alcohol and sexual abuse, self-harm, and low self-esteem.
For Mary Jo the connection is up-close-and-personal, “In my 20’s, I knew I wanted to do something that would help women because I had been through some horrible things,” she recalls. “Beaten, thrown down the stairs, you name it. I had been through all that, so I knew back then, there was this seed in my heart and it was like always there.”
Among their targeted, proactive initiatives to counter human trafficking among young girls is an aggressive thrust to provide handmade dresses to little girls in the United States and developing countries who are at risk of being kidnapped, enslaved, and trafficked. Too many young girls have no one to care for them and are often targeted for abuse by enterprising predators. Given the moniker, “Dress A Girl Around the World,” by offering these young girls new, colorful dresses with a label in plain view on the outside, it sends a strong message indicating that an organization is looking after them — hopefully causing predators to pass them over.
“We make dresses to prevent human trafficking because when predators see little girls are wearing torn and tattered clothes, they’re viewed as having no self-worth, like trash,” Colligan observes. “So they’re being taken into trafficking as young as two or three-years of age.”
She caught the vision early on and rallied like-minded people who knew their way around a needle and thread. “I said, okay, let’s get a group together and let’s try to make 100 dresses. Now, almost six-years later, we have sent out, with missionaries, over 425,000 dresses to 75 different countries, to areas in our own country that have had devastating or catastrophic problems and we also dress the Rochester city school kids and refugees,” she explains. “That part of our program has grown tremendously and it’s all with our wonderful volunteers, who have a heart.”
AOM does not stop there! They rally their volunteers to produce a number of events that both raise awareness and fund their programs. For example, in addition to human trafficking presentations, they are hoping to establish a fully staffed home that is autonomous and can help women develop life skills, grow closer to the Lord, and heal from the heartbreak of being enslaved and exploited. It is critical that women have some place to go to get away from their abusers. Additionally, they have a boutique that offers free clothing, healing retreats, and numerous programs to touch lives with the love of God here and abroad. There are other events and programs along with vision for the future.
“People don’t realize how big it is and that it’s happening right in our own back yard. It’s one of my main focuses,” observes Colligan passionately. “It’s not just capturing women and taking them in,” she continues, “but it’s so interrelated to the drug population and so many things. Educate the paparazzi and educate the youth and let people know what’s going on and try to help them and support them so that they can move from the victim mentality and the victims are replaced in their lives by the victor.” She goes on, “Do you know what I’m saying? Healing is so important, but there are so many levels because human trafficking really rips apart every area of your soul and your being when you’re involved in it. You have to be trauma-informed in caring for these individuals because they need specific individualized care. We have a team devoted totally to human trafficking.”
You can volunteer or donate to support AOM’s programs and office workers by calling (585) 730-4556 or visiting their website, www.angelsofmercyny.org.