Rebeca Barber is shown above at a Muskegon Rotaract fundraising table.

Helping human trafficking victims

Allegan grad helps raise awareness and funds
By: 
Ryan Shek, Intern

Allegan’s Rebeca Barber doesn’t really know where she found the time to help raise $7,000 for human trafficking victims between three jobs and a full-time course load—she just did.

“You just make the time,” Barber said.

“You make it work.”

Barber, who graduated from Allegan High School in 2010, helped the Muskegon Rotaract Club of Baker College raise and donate $7,000 to the Hope Project, a Muskegon-based organization that spreads human trafficking awareness and supports those affected by it.

The money has helped fund Hope Village, a live-in support home for Michigan children ages 11 to 18 who have been removed from sex trafficking situations. The house is undergoing final renovations and will accommodate up to six girls at a time; Project Hope is planning to add two more homes in the coming years.

According to Barber, Rotaract’s mission “service above self,” coupled with Muskegon’s need for a victim support center, inspired the club to take action.

“The biggest thing when we talk about human trafficking (is the assumption that we’re) not talking about Muskegon,” Barber said. “Grand Rapids has a home for victims and we learned that a large portion of their beds were taken up by Muskegon (victims)—it was really eye opening.

“Growing up in Allegan, my parents kind of sheltered me—there are a lot of things that can happen to a community when people just don’t know what to look for.”

According to Julia Koch, the Hope Project’s director of development and advocacy, human trafficking is a Michigan problem as well as a national one and its signs are often atypical.

 “A lot of people think that children who end up in sex trafficking have been abducted,” Koch said. “That’s not really as common as them being lured and groomed.

“Imagine a 16-year-old girl with a 19-year-old college student, or a 30-year-old man. He might get the girl to think he loves her—and decide they’re going to run off. At that point anything can happen— and there are children who are that vulnerable.”

“(Traffickers) are excellent at recognizing vulnerability and (are) very manipulative,” Koch said.

According to Koch, the ambiguity surrounding human trafficking often leads to victims being identified as criminals, which is not only detrimental to emotional rehabilitation, but can sometimes lead to the prosecution of minors under Michigan’s prostitution laws.

“Often what happens is these kids end up getting prosecuted for a crime that their trafficker made them commit,” Koch said. “They don’t realize that they’re a victim of human trafficking and tend to view police as the enemy.

“(The police and prosecutors) are just doing what we as a society are asking them to do, so they face the same paradigm shift as citizens.”

The paradigm shift, according to Koch, is dependent on the education and awareness spread by programs and universities such as Muskegon Rotaract at Baker College.

“The amount of awareness that (Rotaract students) have raised over the past year is amazing,” Koch said. “We believe awareness leads to prevention and identification and gives victims better access to (support) services.

“They were so enthusiastic—they took on the issue and just kept on it throughout the school year. It was pretty inspiring to us.”

According to Linda Meyers, the program director of marketing and the Rotaract Club Advisor at Baker College, students will typically choose a cause to raise money for and will then volunteer for hundreds of hours throughout the school year.

“We discovered that (human trafficking) is kind of this hidden secret,” Meyers said. “If we can make a difference in one person’s life then why not do it?”

Rotaract students worked with local retail stores and restaurants, held bake sales, and even collected 75,000 pop cans to help raise money for Hope Village.

In 2013-14, the club was recognized by Governor Snyder, and Senator Geoff Hansen and was even awarded a presidential citation for Rotary International. However, according to Meyers, students such as Allegan’s Rebeca Barber deserve all the recognition they get and more.

“I just think that the Rotaract club needs more awareness,” Meyers said. “The students out here who are spending a lot of their time and effort putting service above self also have full time jobs and are going to school full time. (You’ll see) the busiest students getting the most involved.”

“With Rebeca—she just does not stop.” Meyers said. “She’s either working three jobs or going to school full time or volunteering a ton of time working fundraising tables—or tutoring students who don’t have the ability or background to go to college at local elementary schools.

“I have absolutely no idea when she sleeps.”

For Barber, her lifetime membership in the Girl Scouts normalized community service and made volunteering an integral part of her life. Barber even received their highest honor, the Gold Award, in 2010.

“Volunteering is a huge part of the Girl Scouts,” Barber said. “It was the main reason why I got involved with Rotaract—I was in a different district and was (drawn to their mission).”  

“Service above self,” she said.

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