A Guest Post from Shannon in Virginia.
When I became an Ambassador of Hope, I was passionate about spreading awareness of trafficking in my native state of West Virginia. Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by rich natural and cultural resources, it is easy to feel you are far away from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, West Virginia struggles with real world problems, such as severe poverty, drug use and unemployment. I grew up knowing the state I loved lagged behind others in economic growth and the health of its citizens. As I became involved in combatting sex trafficking, it broke my heart to find out that West Virginia also lagged behind in its laws to protect victims and bring justice to the people who exploit them.
As I began encouraging citizens and legislators to ask for stronger laws to protect their children, I have been honored to work with advocates and everyday citizens to educate West Virginians about the topic and ways that they can take action. In a recent visit, I spoke to a roller derby group about warning signs of trafficking while they are on the road traveling to competitions, worked with a women’s organization to hold a community screening of our prevention film Chosen, and was a guest on a radio show to talk about how West Virginia can strengthen its laws.
I was especially humbled to speak to a group of law enforcement officers, child and victim advocates in my hometown. These men and women are on the front lines of the issue and work hard to protect vulnerable populations from people who hurt them. It was exciting to meet the West Virginia State Police corporal (pictured here on the right) that had successfully worked a case I often use to illustrate that trafficking does not have to involve money, but that it can be anything of value exchanged for sexual acts. In this case, a man solicited elementary-age victims over the Internet and lured them with Ugg boots and cigarettes. The perpetrator received a long prison sentence and will be unable to harm other children in the community. Read the story here.
Though West Virginia struggles with issues that make it vulnerable to trafficking, it has heroes like this officer, concerned citizens and legislators that continue to sponsor and push for stronger laws against trafficking. They all recognize that there is a need for awareness and are constantly working to ensure West Virginia lives up to its state motto, “Mountaineers Are Always Free.” I am happy to do my small part.