BANGOR, Maine — When local resident Gabrielle Brochu went to Asia and Africa she witnessed human sex trafficking first hand, and she decided she had to do something. Brochu has organized Maine’s first Run For Their Lives 5K to spotlight the problem.
“When I was in Thailand and saw the faces of the girls in the red-light district, I knew I had to make a difference,” she told participants who gathered for the run-walk Saturday morning at Husson University. “Not only is this happening across the world, but also here in Portland, Maine, according to a recent Bangor Daily News story.”
The rain that fell on Saturday morning did not dampen the spirit of the 100-plus people who gathered from all over the state for the event, which raised funds in support of Freedom 4-24, a group that works to empower enslaved women and children, and the International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that rescues victims of violence, sexual exploitation, slavery and oppression, Brochu said. Other Run For Their Lives events were held simultaneously at 24 locations across the county on Saturday.
Poverty is the main reason hundreds of thousands of women enter or are forced into sexual slavery and prostitution, and it’s estimated that two children are sold into slavery every minute, she said.
“I saw the faces of the girls being sold for $24 a night,” the former honor roll student from Bangor Christian School and recent Liberty Christian University graduate said, referring to meeting prostitutes in Thailand. After meeting the girls, and after a previous visit to Uganda, “I decided we needed to stand up and take this issue personally.”
The registration fee for the 5k was a symbolic $24, Brochu said.
South Mongolian sisters Weilis and Hailis, who are both studying piano performance at the University of Maine, thought it was important to volunteer at the event, especially since Asia is a hot bed for human trafficking.
“I wanted to help the people — to help the girls,” said Weilis.
She said she has seen television shows and news stories about the problem of human sex trafficking in her home country, located just north of China, but never witnessed anything firsthand.
“There is definitely sexual trafficking everywhere,” her sister said.
Rachel Lord, 14, from Blue Hill, and Debbie Somers of Bangor both said that they were drawn to the event by the stories of those who have fallen victim to human trafficking.
“I heard about it at our church, Bangor Baptist, and came out because this is all wrong,” Somers said. “That hit my heart and I figured I should be here.”
Others from her church also attended, she said.
Lord said she and some family and friends were on hand to “take a stand against human sex trafficking.”
She said she spread the word amongst her friends, some of whom made the trip to support the run.
Brochu said the biggest hurdle she has faced while out talking about the event is people’s lack of knowledge about what is happening.
“They are unaware,” she said, adding, “People don’t want to know about the rough stuff that’s going on in the world. It’s not in their face,” so they choose to ignore it.
Service providers and police in the Portland area are not ignoring the problem, and instead have joined forces to create the Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking and Exploitation, which has been in place for about a year.
Auburn police and support services also are hosting the second Not Here Conference scheduled for Oct. 25-26, which will include Maine’s Attorney General William Schneider, national experts and Detroit sex slavery survivor and author Theresa Flores.
Schneider will be talking about “prostitution from the human trafficking point of view,” Brenda Kielty, a special assistant in the attorney general’s office, said Friday. “Clearly, prostitution and human trafficking overlap.”
Brochu said her main goal is to get people talking about human sex trafficking and slavery, because the first step in fixing a problem is to discuss it.
“You have to stand up for what you believe in,” she said. “I encourage others to get involved — to make an impact.”
Those who would like more information about Run For Their Lives can check out the group’s website, r4tl.com.