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Monday, May 27, 2024

Fighting the Good Fight

Jones, Samueli, Snyder-Ellingson, Other OC Execs Mobilize Against Human Trafficking

Orange County’s affluence has made the area a desirable place to travel, settle down and start a company.

Its wealth, however, has also attracted a more sinister business: human trafficking.

The area is heavily overrepresented in terms of traffickers and victims, who have come to Orange County from across the U.S. due to demand, according to a report conducted in 2018 by the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force.

Traffickers “bring their victims [to OC] expecting to have an abundance of customers and higher profits,” the report said.

Local business execs, moved by the staggering number of local and global victims in the $150 billion trafficking industry, are dedicating their off-hours to support survivors, and put trafficking to an end.

Steve Jones, CEO of Irvine security giant Allied Universal, Orange County’s largest private company by revenue, organizes an annual fundraising concert for survivor-assistance programs along with his wife, Stacy.

The event, dubbed Hot August Nights, has raised nearly $5.5 million in total for Vera’s Sanctuary, a residential program in Trabuco Canyon for victims of sex trafficking. The charity, founded in 2018, helps women receive therapy, earn degrees and find employment.

Every year, up to 500 attendees gather at the Jones’ Coto de Caza mansion for dinner and a human trafficking awareness presentation, followed by a concert.

“It’s always the quietest when one of the ladies from Vera’s Sanctuary is sharing her story,” Bruce Tollner, founder of Irvine sports agency Rep1 Sports Group Inc. and a regular Hot August Nights attendee, told the Business Journal. Tollner’s wife, Lisa, serves on the Hot August Nights committee led by Stacy Jones. The event takes a year in advance to organize.

“Everyone donates at different levels,” Tollner said. “Whether it’s their time, their talent or their treasure.”

“If you can impact the trajectory of just one life, it’s an incredible experience,” he added. “Vera’s Sanctuary is doing that on a daily basis.”

Past Hot August Nights performers include Kool & the Gang lead vocalist Skip Martin, rapper Nelly, rock band Loverboy, Van Halen vocalist Sammy Hagar and Journey lead singer Steve Augeri. Tickets go for $550 per person, according to Stacy Jones.

This year’s country-themed Hot August Nights featured country pop singer Dylan Scott. The event, which is Vera’s Sanctuary biggest annual fundraiser, amassed $1.3 million in donations this year.

Teen Project

Vera’s Sanctuary is one of many programs at The Teen Project, a nonprofit that supports women who have survived homelessness and human trafficking. The charity has served over 2,600 women since 2010, 300 of which have experienced trafficking. Founded and led by Lauri Burns—a survivor of trafficking herself—The Teen Project offers residential, addiction and mental health services for affected women, specializing in those from the foster care system.

Foster youth, due to their typical lack of a support network, are a common target for traffickers, experts say. The Teen Project is the only organization in OC that treats trafficking survivors and pregnant women afflicted by addiction, according to Burns. It’s also the only facility in the country that treats addiction in foster care children.

Vera’s Sanctuary houses up to 18 women on-site. Its programs include mental health services, support for education and professional development.

Donations to Vera’s Sanctuary cover the cost of residents’ education expenses, which, according to Burns, can cost between $2,500 to $25,000 per person, as well as baby supplies and cars, among other resources.

Survivor Staff

Over half of Vera’s Sanctuary staff are alumni of the program, according to officials.

Simone Miller, who currently works at Vera’s Sanctuary, escaped sex trafficking as a teenager. Her mother, D’lita Miller, is also a sex trafficking survivor.

When she was 16 years old, the younger Miller got into an argument with her mom at a beauty supply store. A man approached her outside the store and told her he was a rapper.

“I’m gonna be a star,” she said she thought at the time.

Miller and the man exchanged numbers and eventually met again.

The moment Miller stepped into the man’s car, he enabled the child safety lock, told her he was a pimp and that she would do his bidding. He showed her pictures of her grandma’s house and her siblings. Fearing for her family’s safety, she complied to his demands.

“I would rather risk myself than hurt anybody I love,” Miller said.

She eventually escaped and graduated high school. For years, however, she was unable to process her trauma and turned to stripping, unhealthy relationships, drugs and alcohol to cope.

“I don’t know what sick, perverse shift occurred in me, from being the victim to willingly offering my body, but that’s what my life had become,” she said.

Years later, a filmmaker who was producing a documentary on Miller’s story referred her to Vera’s Sanctuary. Miller graduated from the program within a year. She now works at Vera’s Sanctuary as a counselor.

“They loved me. They loved me when I couldn’t love myself,” Miller said of women at Vera’s Sanctuary who helped her. “My whole life has changed and it’s all through women helping other women.”

Today, Miller says she is motivated to pay it forward to the residents at Vera’s Sanctuary who endured trafficking just as she had.

“I commit myself to wake up every single day and help another woman because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Lauri Burns and Vera,” she said. Miller currently lives in Corona with her husband, Jarmain, and has a baby boy due in January.

Rock 2 Freedom

Hot August Nights isn’t the only annual anti-trafficking concert in OC.

In-N-Out Burger CEO Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson also organizes a yearly concert that aims to combat addiction and trafficking. The event, called Rock 2 Freedom, this year raised a total of $400,000, featuring In-N-Out’s “family band,” with Snyder-Ellingson on bass and her husband, Sean Ellingson, on lead guitar. The event, which this year took place at the House of Blues Anaheim, also featured Tommy DeCarlo, lead vocalist for rock band Boston.

­Rock 2 Freedom is organized through Snyder-Ellingson’s nonprofit, Slave 2 Nothing Foundation, which to date has raised a total of $6.3 million for organizations that prevent trafficking and serve survivors as well as people suffering from addiction.

“Some people don’t like to watch certain movies or things that are just hard to watch, because it’s painful. I’m the opposite,” Snyder-Ellingson told the Business Journal. “I want my heart to break for people that are hurting. And I want that heartbreak to motivate me and others to help change the world.”

Slave 2 Nothing this year has raised over $1 million for the 68 anti-human trafficking organizations the charity supports.

Orangewood Foundation

One of Slave 2 Nothing’s beneficiaries is Santa Ana foster and community youth nonprofit Orangewood Foundation, which serves over 2,000 young adults annually with housing, employment and education services.

Orangewood’s anti-trafficking programs, the Lighthouse and Project Choice, aim to help survivors and prevent at-risk youth from being trafficked.

The Lighthouse, like Vera’s Sanctuary, is a residential program for trafficking survivors ages 18 to 25. It serves up to 11 adults at a time, providing mental health services and professional development to residents. The program takes around one to two years to complete, according to Orangewood CEO Chris Simonsen. The nonprofit also offers a transitional housing program for Lighthouse alumni.

Orangewood’s other trafficking-oriented program, Project Choice, focuses on trafficking prevention and provides support to youth who are currently being trafficked. Project Choice, a drop-in resource center that annually serves about 100 youth, provides clothing, hygiene products, laundry services and other basic necessities on top of therapy and employment assistance.

United Way Fund

Other prominent local supporters of Orangewood Foundation include philanthropists Susan Samueli and Carey Clawson, who are founding members of the Orange County Anti-Human Trafficking Cooperative.

“It’s a terrible, terrible thing that any young girl should be subjected to this,” Samueli, wife of Broadcom co-founder and Chairman Henry Samueli, told the Business Journal during an interview at the Samueli Foundation office in Corona del Mar.

“So, in my mind, it’s not hard to want to do something,” she said.

The Cooperative, started in 2019, began as an awareness group that brings together trafficking experts and philanthropists who are curious about how to help stop trafficking and support survivors.

The group’s first fundraising efforts kicked off last month with a fund through global nonprofit United Way. The anti-trafficking fund, said to be the first of its kind in Orange County, will evenly disperse donations among the Cooperative’s affiliated organizations, which include Orangewood.

Labor Trafficking’s Range

Samueli’s Cooperative aims to educate members on not only sex trafficking but also labor trafficking—which gets significantly less attention despite being 60% to 80% more prevalent, according to Kelsey Morgan, co-founder and chief impact officer of San Juan Capistrano anti-trafficking nonprofit EverFree.

Morgan, a designated expert in Samueli’s Cooperative, is also studying human trafficking as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Irvine’s Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation.

“We have a great track record of identifying, intervening and recovering victims of sex trafficking,” Morgan told the Business Journal. Authorities “don’t have the same track record with labor trafficking.”

Labor trafficking spans across multiple industries—including beauty, technology, hospitality and construction. Over 85% of forced labor cases take place in the private sector, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Law enforcement has a harder time identifying labor trafficking victims because many of them, on paper, appear to be doing legal work, such as cleaning hotel rooms or washing dishes at a restaurant. The majority of labor trafficking survivors in the U.S. come to the country with a legal work visa sponsored by a company, according to Brenda Wells, founder and executive director at anti-trafficking nonprofit I-5 Freedom Network.

Labor trafficking victims also tend to come from vulnerable populations. Nearly all labor trafficking victims in the U.S. have had a history of abuse or some interaction with social welfare, according to Morgan.

Villa Park Survivor

Morgan recently encountered a labor trafficking survivor in Villa Park. The young girl she found was selling magazines and books at a neighborhood park in the area. When Morgan alerted the sheriff, he didn’t believe her at first. She had to convince him of her expertise before he looked into it.

“All the red flags were there,” Morgan said of the girl. She asked Morgan for water, kept referring to her as “ma’am” and wore multiple layers of clothing even though the weather was warm.

“I assumed that she was covering up some bruises or wounds from being beaten,” Morgan said.

Morgan also saw an expensive SUV pickup with the girl from the park, despite her tattered clothing.

The sheriff eventually called Morgan back to say he had found three more victims, in addition to the girl, and arrested two suspects in a labor trafficking scheme.

“I hope we can get a conviction,” Morgan said. “I hope the sheriff’s department uses this case as a teaching opportunity.”

The pandemic-induced economic crisis has caused labor trafficking to increase at an alarming rate in high- and middle-income countries, Morgan said, citing the latest ILO report.

Yet, identification of trafficking victims since last year dropped to 90,000 from over 100,000. That doesn’t mean trafficking is on the decline—the number of people in modern slavery has jumped from 40 million to 50 million since 2016, according to ILO.

Trafficker-victim dynamics make survivor identification difficult for authorities. Traffickers often manipulate victims, convincing them they’re in a romantic relationship. As a result, victims are more reluctant to prosecute someone they think they love.

Many victims also tend to blame themselves, often believing that because they signed a contract with their abuser, they’ve consented to being trafficked, Wells said.

Many traffickers have an established sense of trust with survivors, especially those who are parents or extended family members of the victim.

Ending Trafficking

The fight to ending labor and sex trafficking is hardly an easy one.

Still, it’s not impossible, says Sandie Morgan—no relation to Kelsey Morgan—director of the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University, an expert in Samueli’s Cooperative and former member of the White House advisory council on human trafficking.

Among the informational posters on the walls of Morgan’s office is one that calls for prayers for victims, law enforcement officials and, oddly enough, traffickers—many of whom have been trafficking victims themselves.

“The root of trafficking is greed,” Morgan told the Business Journal. Traffickers “don’t wake up one morning and say, ‘boy, I’m going to traffic these kids.’”

Trafficking, Morgan says, is often a last-resort solution for people who can’t make ends meet.

That’s why a collaborative approach to trafficking, which harnesses the power and cooperation of governments, businesses, nonprofits and local communities is necessary in the fight to end it.

“Nobody’s going to win this battle by themselves,” Morgan said. “If you have a very dense network [between organizations],” it’s harder for victims to fall through the cracks.

Innovation and Technology

Nonprofit leaders are turning to technology as the next step in the fight against trafficking.

The Teen Project’s Burns this year partnered with Microsoft Corp. for the development of her app—modeled after sites like hotels.com—that aims to help survivors escape trafficking by allowing them to easily book a place to stay at shelters and residential programs.

People who are currently being trafficked often have a hard time finding a place to stay, according to Burns.

“If you pretend to be a girl, and you started Googling and calling places, you’d get the push around, a voicemail or a ‘we don’t do interviews today,’” Burns said. “You would spend all day calling places.”

She hopes her app, called Safe Site, will help at-risk women and those currently being trafficked escape their situations. Safe Site will launch on the Apple and Google app stores at the beginning of next year, starting with shelters in California—No. 6 in the country for highest trafficking rates per state, according to data visualization firm World Population Review.

Kelsey Morgan, as part of her research at UCI, is also developing a digital tool geared toward survivors.

The software, called the Freedom Greenlight, surveys survivors and shares the gathered data with anti-trafficking organizations to not only prevent trafficking but also evaluate how well charities are meeting the needs of survivors. It’s also the first software to directly survey survivors.

“Every individual has different needs and different backgrounds,” Morgan said. “This tool really takes the guesswork out of” supporting victims.

Two anti-trafficking organizations are currently putting Freedom Greenlight to use. Orangewood will be piloting the tool next year. By 2024, Morgan aims to implement the tool in four more anti-trafficking nonprofits.

“The cool thing about Orange County is that it’s usually a world leader in developing models—it’s an innovation hub in the world,” Morgan said. “So, what we can do here can also be a model for the rest of the world.”

USAG Volunteers

On-site volunteering is one way Fadi Cheikha contributes to Vera’s Sanctuary.

Cheikha, CEO of Rancho Santa Margarita payment processing firm US Alliance Group Inc. (USAG), donates $1,500 monthly to OC trafficking survivor residential program Vera’s Sanctuary through Aiden Whisper, a nonprofit he founded with his wife, Kim. Aiden Whisper donates to a range of causes, from organizations that support trafficking survivors to those that assist impoverished children across the globe.

Cheikha, whose foundation began donating to Vera’s Sanctuary in 2020, has contributed $37,000 to date.

Several USAG employees have also volunteered at Vera’s Sanctuary as part of the company’s “extreme time off” policy, Cheikha said. The policy allots employees three days a year, on top of their regular paid time off, to spend volunteering or serving their physical health.

Cheikha and his children, Jaden and Jacquie, often volunteer at Vera’s Sanctuary. One visit brought them to tears after they met an underage girl who had survived trafficking.

“My kids went to the car and cried,” Cheikha said. “It was so moving for us.”
—Kaitlin Aquino

Orangewood Galas

Dual-business owner Vic Merjanian often receives calls for help from survivors through both his emergency alert company, and his injury and accident law firm in Newport Beach.

“It’s more than you would think,” he told the Business Journal.

Those chilling calls have spurred Merjanian, who leads Newport Beach-based Titan Health & Security Technologies Inc., and Kalfayan Merjanian, LLP, to organize events that raise awareness on the severity of trafficking.

A board member of Orangewood Foundation, Merjanian organizes yearly fundraising galas for the nonprofit at Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Beach.

The annual galas, which typically have around 300 attendees, have raised a total of $252,000 to date.

—Kaitlin Aquino

Trafficking Training

Steve Jones’ mission to spread awareness on the severity of trafficking doesn’t end with his charity work. He also makes it a point to educate employees of Irvine security giant Allied Universal on the issue.

“As Stacy and I became more personally aware of human trafficking, I made sure the company became more aware of it,” the Allied chief executive told the Business Journal.

Jones and The Teen Project founder Lauri Burns have created a training video for Allied’s 800,000 security professionals. The course teaches how to identify and help trafficking victims. The company also includes additional identification tips and reminders in its weekly internal newsletters.

Through the initiative, many Allied security officers have not only prevented trafficking but also helped survivors escape. One Allied security guard stationed at an emergency room pulled aside a young woman after growing suspicious of the man she came with to the hospital. Authorities later arrested the man for sex trafficking.

—Kaitlin Aquino

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