If you drive down Interstate 24 West towards Nissan Stadium, there’s a billboard you can’t miss right before Exit 49. It features Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker holding a snapshot surrounded by the words WhatIs13.com. Visit the website and you’ll find a pretty shocking truth. Thirteen is the average age of children when they are forced into human trafficking for the first time. Not in Third World nations or far-off reaches of the globe. Not out of nameless urban areas or hidden black markets. Right here in Tennessee.
While the idea of human trafficking may seem as foreign to us as the countries where we think it solely exists, the sad truth is that modern day slavery is a reality right here in Tennessee. Almost 100 children are trafficked in our state every single month, a fact that End Slavery Tennessee faces head on every day. Through strategic programs and invaluable healing resources for survivors of human trafficking, End Slavery Tennessee is making a huge difference in the lives of thousands of people.
Established in 2008 by CEO Derri Smith, End Slavery Tennessee was born out of a lifetime of experiences with injustice and an impassioned call she could not ignore. Smith spent much of her childhood in an abusive environment and as an adult, she worked overseas with refugees. Upon returning to Nashville, Smith was shocked to find that perhaps the grossest injustice was happening in her own backyard.
“I came undone with the thought that young women and girls and sometimes boys were held against their will and sold for sex and labor, right here in Middle Tennessee,” Smith says. “Trafficked children die every day without hope. Others start life in a pit so low that only extraordinary care can help them climb out of darkness. How can I know this is happening in my beloved community and not do something?”
Over the past nine years, End Slavery Tennessee has become one of the most prominent nonprofits in Middle Tennessee, seeking to turn off the “T.A.A.P.” of human trafficking through four strategic programming areas: training, aftercare, advocacy and prevention. Every year, the organization trains over 10,000 community members to recognize human trafficking in their own neighborhoods. In 2016 alone, End Slavery provided specialized trauma aftercare and healing to 136 women and children survivors. Advocacy has come through successful lobbying for stronger laws and communication, helping to establish other anti-trafficking organizations statewide and collaboration with government agencies across the Southwest. And perhaps the most important piece, End Slavery’s prevention initiatives have sought to stop trafficking before it begins, protecting vulnerable youth and fighting to dry up the demand for slavery throughout the state.
But even beyond these official programs, it’s the story of the many survivors of human trafficking that Smith loves to share most often. While the harsh truth of modern day slavery is very real, it’s the story of their resilience, healing and hope that she finds the most compelling. Like the story of Alexis, who came to End Slavery Tennessee out of the most horrific circumstances and yet was still able to ultimately find hope that the world can still be a beautiful place and that people can still be trusted.
“Alexis came to us a broken girl, curled up on the floor in silence in the corner of my office,” she shares. “At 17, her ‘boyfriend’ sold her a dream — love, marriage, happily-ever-after — a dream that turned into a nightmare. Her boyfriend was actually a recruiter for a trafficker. She lived in our safe house for a year, focusing on recovery. Now, two years later, Alexis’ bubbly personality fills our office with laughter. She has her own apartment, a job, a (real) boyfriend who truly loves her and, in fulfillment of a lifelong dream, a puppy! Next step? College!”
Want to get involved? Visit EndSlaveryTN.org to learn more about volunteer training, donating and ways to spread awareness.