Sex trafficking victim
An officer talks with a sex trafficking victim. Courtesy FBI

Human sex trafficking, the $800 million dark industry in San Diego County, preys on an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 victims in our region. Approximately 80 percent of them are U.S. citizens, who get recruited through force, fraud or coercion as early as the 5th grade.

Thankfully, a myriad of citizens, law enforcement and community groups now stand together to combat this scourge. Count San Diego Rotary among them.

In all the current efforts against human trafficking, one thing stands clear; we won’t enforce our way out of it. Our current system cannot take care of all victims and prosecute traffickers even if they miraculously turned themselves into the San Diego County District Attorney’s office tomorrow. We must include efforts that help prevent young people from turning into a statistic.

Schools stand on the front lines of this fight.

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Truthfully, I did not know much about this issue until a little more than three years ago, when I met a young high school junior at a youth camp that my Rotary club runs. At that program’s talent show, this student performed “speed art” by creating a full painting in under three minutes. When she finished, she requested the microphone and explained that she developed this skill as a way to channel her suicidal tendencies when in the hospital not that long ago. “I’m a human trafficking survivor,” she said.

We later found out that this young student still suffered from the aftermath of her personal hell, and our camp served as her first foray out in quite some time. Her incredible courage enabled her to stand before 80 other students and nearly four dozen Rotarians and college Rotaractors, in the dark of night, to tell her story. After just 36 hours of being a part of this experience, this inspiring young person felt the safety and security she needed to continue her healing process.

When she did, the room fell silent — for one second. Then out of the back came a young voice, who answered her statement of “I’m a human trafficking survivor,” with “Yeah you are!!!” and the room erupted in applause and love.

I placed my face in my hands, overcome by what I just witnessed. My emotions ran the gamut. Love, pride, joy and rage enveloped me. I kept thinking about the possibilities that intervention could prevent someone — even just one young person — from experiencing the same pain, isolation and fear this student felt.

There is.

Teachers, most notably those caring for 5th, 7th, 9th and 11th-grade students, can play a significant role in identifying their students at risk and actively targeted by traffickers if appropriately trained. Thankfully, the San Diego Trafficking Prevention Collective offers free training to teachers if school districts can fund the in-service days.

Herein lies the rub. Already besieged by unfunded mandates and dwindling resources, school districts do not possess the resources to pay for additional in-service days. San Diego Rotary and its more than 500 members spanning four generations stand ready to support with more than $50,000 in funds to qualifying San Diego County public school districts and charter schools.

We ask for your help in getting the word out as we seek these institutions to fill out this initial Explanation of Interest Form by Oct. 15. We can empower teachers to make a difference in this fight, but only if they know that such support exists.

The members of San Diego Rotary sincerely appreciate your help.

David Oates is the current president of San Diego Rotary, the fourth largest Rotary club in the world. The organization creates opportunities for providing lasting and significant impact both locally and around the world.