By Maria Saporta
Two years ago, U.S. District Attorney Sally Yates spoke to the Rotary Club of Atlanta.
“She told us about the underbelly of our city that few of us knew and no one wanted to hear,” wrote Rotarian Bob Hope in the Rotary newsletter about how Atlanta had become a major center for human trafficking. “Sally Yates’ message was an epiphany.”
So began Rotary’s involvement in the human trafficking issue and its support of the Covenant House.
Yates returned to Rotary on Monday to thank the civic organization and individual members for taking action and making a real difference in the lives of young people.
“You’ve transformed them from victims to survivors,” Yates told the Atlanta Rotarians.
Rotarian Clark Dean was equally moved by Yates’ words two years ago. Dean worked with his Rotary colleagues, including Dave McCleary, a past president of Roswell Rotary, as well as his Leadership Atlanta class.
They quickly found out that the Covenant House, which addressed the issue of homeless teens, was in dire need of more space.
“They had 15 beds with 10 kids on floor mats and 150 kids on a waiting list,” Dean said. “We helped them acquire a seven-acre piece of property and a 60,000 square foot facility that has a crisis shelter with 45 beds. It also has three cottages that will ultimately allow the whole complex to house about 100 kids.”
The total project cost was $4 million. “We still have about $200,000 left to raise,” Dean said.
Meanwhile Yates said work is being done to train local law enforcement to be on the lookout for victims with possible pimps. Even taxi drivers have been trained.
Staca Shehan, director of the Case Analysis Division for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that last year one out of seven runaways were being exploited for sex trafficking.
“The biggest change has occurred online,” said Shehan, who was part of Monday’s Rotary panel.
Linda Smith, a former Congresswoman from the State of Washington who is the founder and CEO of Shared Hope International, urged everyone in the audience to be sensitive to signs of young people who might be in trouble
“The most important thing you can individually do is change your language,” she said, adding that a girl who is a victim of sex trafficking is not a prostitute. “The average age of entry is very, very low – 13.”
Shehan also said it’s not just girls who are victims. And Atlanta is a pioneer in helping boys who have been victims of sex trafficking.
Marq Taylor currently is working to open Anchor House. It will be the first home in the country to serve only boys and male survivors.