MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Tuesday, January 13th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A survivor story.
Now, this is a story you may want to come back to later if you’ve got young children around. So this is a good time to hit pause if that’s the case for you.
BROWN: Always helpful to give a warning.
Well, January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Senior Correspondent Kim Henderson recently spent time with an abuse victim who is using her experience to help others fighting these crimes.
REICHARD: It’s not easy to tell painful stories about ourselves, and this is the first time this woman has done so. We’ve changed her name and her voice to protect her privacy.
SHARON: Something that will catch your attention, and you’ll over there and say: “Oh, I want that…”
KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: In her younger days, Sharon designed window displays at big casinos. At 56, she now employs her skills at a vendor mall.
SHARON: And out here we did Valentines…
But it’s not your ordinary vendor booth.
The proceeds from its punch bowl and candle stick sales go to Advocates for Freedom, a faith-based nonprofit that fights human trafficking. Founder Susie Harvill remembers meeting Sharon.
HARVILL: When she walked into our training and she sat down, I could look at her eyes, and I knew that she had been trafficked.
Harvill was right. Sharon’s story includes several layers of abuse, starting when she was 3. It began with her grandfather.
SHARON: He molested his children, and he molested some of us grandkids. I was one of them went on until I was 18.
Sharon married young to escape her situation.
SHARON: I thought Tony was that knight in shining armor. You know, that’s going to save me from everything. He wasn’t.
Tony began abusing her a week after their wedding. It wasn’t long before he invited other men into their life to do the same.
It’s not easy for Sharon to talk about it. Her whole body shakes as she describes her second husband, Jim, and their military stint in Germany.
SHARON: That’s when he started with the computer. He would take pictures and send them. Advertise.
They were pictures of her.
Sharon takes long pauses as she talks. Sometimes she stares at the wall. Sometimes she closes her eyes.
SHARON: Once we got back on American soil. That’s when he got bigger into getting guys to meet me.
But even then, Sharon stayed with Jim. Abuse victims are often easy to manipulate.
SHARON: He told me nobody would want me.
Still, she didn’t think Jim would harm children. Then one day she noticed her young sons doing something shocking: a sexual behavior they’d been taught.
SHARON: The boys sat there and said, “Well, daddy told us if we told anybody, that you would have a seizure and die.”
Sharon decided to go to the police, and she had other information to give them as well.
SHARON: We had three cars. One of them, the trunk was locked and he wouldn’t let me have the key. Well, he also had a post office box that he went under the name “Sandra,” and teenage girls would write him back thinking they were talking to a woman.
False correspondence is a tool human traffickers use. Susie Harvill explains why.
HARVILL: To find out if they are lonely, and if they would come out of the house and meet somebody. At the mall, a park, a ball game, or wherever, then that child is gone and may be gone forever.
When Sharon managed to open the car trunk, she couldn’t handle what she found inside. It was full of graphic letters and photos. She later learned the stacks included pictures of her children, too.
SHARON: The police stepped in and did a sting. And then they caught him with two girls.
A trial led to Jim’s conviction in 2001, but the long term effects of his abuse continue.
Susie Harvill has worked with cases like Sharon’s for years. She believes there’s only one way to break the cycle.
HARVILL: Someone turns to God. Someone says, “Help me, dear Jesus.”
Sharon says she spent years blaming God for all the pain she experienced. She wasn’t expecting to ever feel whole again.
SHARON: How do you find God in all that mess? Not very easy. Not very easy.
But she did, and she’s learning to get past her past.
These days Sharon watches her church’s services on Zoom and spends time with Harvill and other volunteers at the vendor booth. It’s a big change.
HARVILL: I had no friends. I had closed off all my feelings towards people, so I couldn’t get hurt again.
Advocates for Freedom Founder Susie Harvill says she loves to hear Sharon pray at their meetings. Her words are simple and earnest. And they testify that for all the bad, God has turned things for good in her life.
Now Sharon is using her suffering to help others. Along with Harvill and her fellow volunteers, she’s educating the public about signs of trafficking: bruises and burns. Gaze aversion. Sexualized clothing. Emotional distress.
HARVILL: Something on TV or you’re talking to them about it, or we’re in a school situation. What will happen is they will start breaking out in hives on their necks and on their chests. They will start tapping a pen just as hard as they can on the back of a desk. They’ve got to get up and away…
And Sharon is praying for an end to the cycle of abuse in her family, especially since she’s helping raise a granddaughter. This time her eyes are wide open.
SHARON: I stand at the door and watch to make sure she’s OK while she’s standing at that bus stop.
But to really win this war, Harvill says the demand for trafficking must stop.
HARVILL: Women in this arena will do a lot to help heal and work for victims, but it is men that will stop human trafficking. They will stop feeding into it and allowing it and turning a blind eye to people that are doing it. They will cause the justice for the children who have no voice to come about.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in D’Iberville, Mississippi.