Helen Harold and Maddie Smith are an unlikely pair. Yet, the two have joined forces to put local human trafficking in the crosshairs.
Together, Harold and Smith have trained 14 other volunteers to canvas hotels in the Coulee Region, alerting them to signs of human trafficking.
In the past, Harold, a retired West Salem school teacher and grandmother of eight, helped start the Community Care and Share food pantry and served on the West Salem Village Board. She currently acts as the Peace and Justice representative for Church Women United, a group representing 24 local churches.
Smith, a senior at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse from Marshfield, is just beginning to test the waters of activism. Majoring in public health, she interns as a resource advocate at New Horizons Women’s Shelter in La Crosse. Social justice is high on her list of priorities-and that includes human trafficking.
According to Harold, hotels and motels can offer convenient locations to harbor sex trafficking victims. Situated on Interstate 90 between Chicago and Minneapolis, La Crosse falls in the eye of the storm. Church Women United hopes to change the weather.
Trafficking is a $150 billion worldwide industry, ensnaring an estimated 20 million victims into a lurid ecosystem that sustains itself on the poor. About a quarter are children.
While most people think of it as an overseas problem, Smith who also doubles as the human trafficking intern at New Horizons knows differently.
“In 2016, New Horizons helped 19 victims of human trafficking,” she said. “And those are only the ones who sought help.”
But mixing Smith’s energy with Harold’s experience, however, required a catalyst, and that came in the person of Sister Marlene Weisenbeck of the La Crosse Area Task Force on Human Trafficking.
“She suggested having a packet to leave and gave us guidance-she was a great help,” said Harold.
And so, with a little guidance, Harold put her teaching experience to work, creating folders on human trafficking and its link with the hotel industry. She and Smith used the packet as curriculum for a training program held at First Free Church in Onalaska.
The material also served as a tool for hotel managers, helping them to educate employees and identify signs of possible trafficking.
“The most important thing we tell them is to train your staff,” Harold said.
Information in the packet included facts about trafficking. According to Smith, one of the telltale signs of trafficking is a female, often 12-14 years of age traveling with an older “boyfriend.” Smith said that many trafficking connections often get started on Facebook using the Messenger app. The packet even included a script Harold penned to get the volunteers started on their pitch to hotel managers.
Not only did Smith personally recruit nine volunteers, but she and Harold joined the other volunteers to hit the pavement, setting a goal of reaching 32 hotels and motels in the greater La Crosse area.
“I was a little nervous because we didn’t know how people would respond to it,” she said as she described her visits. “It’s hard to throw an elevator speech at them in a short period of time.”
While neither Smith nor Harold encountered any negative response, Smith found that some hotels seemed to have a better grasp of the problem.
“Some were more perceptive than others, but everyone was on board,” she said.
Smith was surprised to find that one hotel had already trained its staff.
“Those who know it’s an issue are the ones who don’t need it,” she said. But then added, “some mom and pop places were a little less receptive.
“Whether you’re working to fight it or not, it’s, going to happen,” she said. “Turning a blind eye to it will not make it go away.”
Sister Eileen Lang of La Crosse had a similar experience when she shared the packet with the managers of a large hotel chain in La Crosse. Lang said that in the past, the hotel would periodically broach the subject with employees, but didn’t have systematic training in place. After Lang’s visit, things changed.
“They said they would take the materials to human resources and the general manager along with a recommendation to make a more formal approach to employee training,” said Lang.
In addition to education, volunteers provided managers with information about joining “The Code.” The Code is a moniker for, The Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism. Harold explained that while hotels pay a fee to join, the incentive is a place on a national registry. Travelers can then find assurance that the place where they lodge is vigilant and has zero tolerance for trafficking.
While CWU can’t immediately know the outcomes of their work, in September, the group will make return calls to see if the visits paid off.
“At least we planted a seed,” said Smith. “We got people having conversations about it.”
Smith is philosophical about her work and internships.
“The thing that moves me every day is that it really makes your problems seem small,” she said. “It makes me know how privileged I am.”