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Now You Know

Now You Know

I learned a long time ago that some of our biggest community issues can be hidden from plain sight. When I first began working around eliminating hunger and homelessness I was astounded by the number of hidden hungry men, women and children there were in our neighborhoods. Just when I believe I have a grasp on the current needs in our region, I seem to learn of more. Sometimes the need is so complex that it takes a good deal of time and research to gain a greater understanding. I firmly believe that creating social change begins with awareness. Once we know of a need, we are more likely to step up to make a difference.

Human Trafficking is one of those issues that has become more evident nationally and locally. A number of organizations are working in the Southwest Florida area to impact those who are suffering in this hidden world and to educate our community on the issue so we can react.

This week’s column is written by Nola Theiss, Executive Director of Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships. The Foundation funded the Point of Contact/Point of Rescue program as part of our Community Impact Grants to train businesses, law enforcement, and medical personnel to identify and report signs of human trafficking and to also expand this program into Hendry, Glades, De Soto and Charlotte counties.

In her own words, Nola shares some of the efforts happening in Southwest Florida to address this complex issue.

Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships (HTAP) has been actively building awareness of modern day slavery since it was formed in 2006. Working primarily in SW Florida, it has held trainings, outreach events and recently has become known for its youth prevention programs which educate kids between 10 and 18 about the dangers of trafficking and how to avoid becoming a victim. During one program held at a foster group home last summer, two participants recognized that they had been victimized and sought help.

A new program, Point of Contact, Point of Rescue, was instituted last year. It reaches out to employees and managers of businesses, such as fast food restaurants, malls and even hospitals and libraries and teaches them to recognize the signs of trafficking and to create employee protocols to report what they’ve seen without endangering themselves or others and possibly initiating, but not participating in, the rescue of victims.

We are working to convince business owners that making a business safer for both employees and customers by working collaboratively with law enforcement and social service agencies is a crucial service they can provide for their customers. Over 150 victims have been identified in SW Florida in the last five years, ranging in age from nine to 67 of all types, so there are many people who would benefit from the results of their cooperation. Not all of these victims have been kept hidden in a room somewhere. Rather they are often in schools, on the streets, in restaurants or working at jobs but kept under the control of their traffickers through the invisible chains of force, fraud or coercion.

Lee Memorial Health System has wholeheartedly participated in the program. Pilot programs have been conducted for emergency room personnel, urgent care facilities and other departments in three of the hospitals. After the first training, an emergency room nurse at Gulf Coast Medical Center called in a report. Within twenty minutes, representatives from the Abuse Counseling Treatment Center and law enforcement arrived to evaluate the patient and seek appropriate help. This is the latest example of the cases which have been reported over the years. The training departments have worked closely to devise the best possible reporting system to protect those who use their services. Our goal is to reach every employee in the system.

Human trafficking flourishes when those who see victims either do not recognize them or do not know how to safely respond. This program aims to eliminate those two conditions.

To learn more about Human Trafficking or if you would like to become part of the solution, please email me at [email protected]

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation has been supporting the communities of Lee, Charlotte, Glades, Hendry, and Collier counties since 1976. With assets over $72 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $57 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves. For more information, please call 274-5900, or visit our web site at

Sarah Owen
Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen, President & CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, leads a passionate and diverse team dedicated to driving regional change for the common good. The Foundation is committed to engaging the community in conversations and action that creates sustainable positive change and provides the funding to make those changes a reality. More