Sept. 29–CLINTON — At one time in his life, retired truck drive Al Burke didn’t know what to do for a girl in a situation she couldn’t control.
Now, decades later, he does, and he’s doing something about it as a member of the Franciscan Peace Center Anti-Trafficking Committee.
“Twenty-seven years ago I drove into a truck stop in Florida at 9 p.m. and this little girl, probably 12, was walking across the parking lot,” Burke said. “I thought, ‘this is not a good neighborhood. Where are her parents?’ She came up to my truck and in broken English said, ‘Driver want company? Driver want fun?’ I said, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ She repeated her two phrases, probably the only ones she knew in English. I went to open the door and she ran away, between some other trucks. I went back to doing my log and soon a van drove up and the girl ran and jumped in it. The driver was a woman and there were three other girls in the back. I didn’t know what to do. Now I would.”
Burke is one of 30 volunteers who make up the anti-trafficking committee that meets once a month at The Canticle, home of the Sisters of St. Francis. While pondering what he could do “for the betterment of mankind” he came across an article in the Clinton Herald about the Sisters of St. Francis Franciscan Peace Center and different opportunities for volunteerism. The words “human trafficking” caught his eye.
The Franciscan Peace Center Anti-Trafficking committee is subdivided into three groups — advocacy, education/prevention and research. Since its inception, the group has sponsored billboards, worked with the Clinton Police Department, organized and co-sponsored programs for the public, assisted trucking companies in educating drivers about how to spot trafficked persons, and visited a number of Clinton area public places to adhere stickers to bathroom mirrors with the message “National Human Trafficking Resource Center 1-888-373-7888.”
The stickers bearing the telephone number were designed to aid victims whose only time away from a captor may be a restroom break en route to another city.
Most recently the group hosted speaker Kelli Saul of Braking Traffik in Davenport who explained that human trafficking may be forced labor, sexual acts for money, or sexual acts for food, shelter, or a ride to the next town. She and other volunteers will be educating ninth-grade health class students in Davenport about the fraud and coercion used to trick young people into being trafficked, how to get help from law enforcement, and whom to turn to for help.
Burke, who attended the presentation, stressed that Saul relayed the experiences of victims, often runaways, from the Iowa towns of Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and the Quad-Cities.
“In her information Saul said the average age of runaways is 12 to 16,” Burke said. “The number of hours before being spotted by a pimp is 48, and the example she gave was of someone in Dubuque. (The girl) was hungry in a grocery store and a man asked her if she needed money. She said yes. The man helped her but later convinced her to take drugs. Eventually he told her she needed to prostitute herself to pay for the drugs. By this time she was too embarrassed to call her mom and dad and he told her she couldn’t call the police because she’d be arrested for using drugs.”
Burke found his niche in the anti-trafficking committee advocating to other truck drivers.
“One of the things I saw as a truck driver is truckers asking for sex on the CB. Every night,” Burke said. “If you drive a semi, you will hear drivers on the CB saying, ‘any working girls out there?’ A woman’s voice will come on and say, ‘What are you looking for, trucker?’ and then advise him to go to a certain channel. They will jump from channel to channel to avoid getting caught.”
As part of the education/prevention subcommittee, Burke speaks to truck drivers for larger companies locally, presenting to their employees. Using the video from Truckers against Trafficking, a national organization, he talks to the employees about what signs to look for and what to do if trafficking is suspected. Burke is also available to speak to smaller companies as needed.
“The smaller companies don’t always have truckers in at the same time but they should show everyone the video,” he said.
Lori Freudenberg, Community Outreach director for the Franciscan Peace Center, thinks education is key.
“Trafficking is a topic which schools, churches and families need to discuss,” Freudenberg said. “The average age of becoming a trafficking victim is 13, so schools supply a captive audience to get the word out for prevention and education, to keep our kids safe from traffickers.”
The committee continually calls legislators to vote for bills on the topic of human trafficking. Sister Joan Theiss, a Clinton Franciscan and member of the committee, feels that while there is much more work to be done, they are making a dent in this growing problem.
“In our research subcommittee we have expressed our belief that there needs to be awareness training about trafficking,” Theiss said. “All persons need adequate knowledge about trafficking which happens even here in Iowa. It is heartening to learn that our governor and lieutenant governor have announced new initiatives to reduce sex trafficking in Iowa.”
Burke would like to emphasize, “If you see a man with a young girl and she won’t make eye contact and he’s speaking for her…beware, that’s one of the signs. Call the police. Don’t get involved. That call might save that little girl.”
The next Anti-Trafficking committee meeting will be Oct. 10 at 9 a.m. at The Canticle. For more information, call Freudenberg at 242-7611.
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