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Park Rapids foundation helps sex trafficking survivors

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Rising Hope Foundation is building the first of three "freedom ranches" for victims of human trafficking.

The faith-based, non-profit organization was founded by Park Rapids residents David and Vicki Leckie.

On May 11, they broke ground in Brainerd for their very first safe house.

Each ranch is intended to be centers of healing and restoration for rescued girls, ranging in age from 12 to 17.

The foundation's goal is to construct dormitory-style centers in Brainerd, Park Rapids and Bemidji. They will be staffed with trained counselors, educators and health care professionals who will provide psychotherapy, schooling, life skills and job training.

The Brainerd site will accommodate eight girls. The 10-acre property will include a new pole building with concrete floor and pasture land for a corral and barn. An existing 30-by-60-foot building will be remodeled.

Rising Hope Foundation is working with two organizations — True North Ranch in Merrifield and Rae's Hope in Brainerd — to implement equine therapy as well.

"We'll step by step, piece by piece, put this thing together," David said of the Brainerd construction project. "This will be a process through the summer. We have enough to complete a lot of the project, but we don't have enough funding to complete all of it. We're stepping forward in faith."

In the coming weeks, Rising Hope Foundation plans to establish a GoFundMe page.

They also welcome volunteers with carpentry skills.

Disturbing statistics

Eighty percent of human trafficking victims are female, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

More than 50 percent are children, the average age being 13 years old.

An exploited youth typically has 20 to 50 clients per night.

It's highly profitable for the trafficker or pimp. At $200 per "trick," the trafficker can make $100,000 off one victim per year, according to Naomi Nelson, a Rising Hope Foundation board member and a regional navigator for the Brainerd office of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.

Regional navigators are tasked with providing training to law enforcement, school officials and others working with juveniles to recognize sexual exploitation and to educate these groups on the services available. They also work directly with youth victims to connect them with services they need.

Nelson, whose territory covers an eight-county region — Aitkin, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd, Benton, Stearns, Sherburne and Wright counties — is focused on educating as many people as possible how to identify victims, ensuring more people who need services have access.

Support Within Reach is the regional coordinator for northwest Minnesota, which includes Hubbard, Cass, Beltrami, Clearwater and Mahnomen counties. The non-profit program has offices in Park Rapids, Bemidji, Walker, Bagley, Aitken and Grand Rapids. Support Within Reach is a sexual violence resource center with trained advocates, prevention education and services to survivors and those who care about them.

The 2011 Safe Harbor Law in Minnesota provides funding and prosecution protection for victims under age 17, and was recently expanded to include funding for victims ages 18-24 to receive services.

Nelson is one of the featured speakers in a YouTube video about human trafficking in Minnesota. Produced by Rising Hope Foundation, the seven-minute film can be found at https://youtu.be/0ClmOJ9gKpI.

"Trafficking is happening all over our state and in our schools. It's happening in central Minnesota, the Brainerd lakes area, Minneapolis, Duluth, the Fargo-Moorhead area," she says.

Once enslaved in sex trafficking, the average lifespan of the victim is seven years.

Raising awareness

Park Rapids sits at the crux of several byways through which humans are trafficked, says Jessica Burkhamer, president of Rising Hope Foundation. Women and children may be sedated, put in containments and shipped from the North Dakota pipelines to Duluth, for example.

"Duluth is a gateway to international waters," she said.

Highways 71 and 371 carry victims north and south.

"Highway 10 is huge. St. Cloud is known as the one of the 'training grounds'" for sexually exploited humans, Burkhamer said.

"And Fargo. Grand Forks as well," said David.

"This is happening, and a lot of people don't believe it's happening. They don't believe it's happening in this area," Burkhamer continued.

She has been a psychotherapist for more than 20 years. She lives in Park Rapids and works at GroupWorks Wellness and Recovery Services.

"There are tons of predators," she said, adding they come from all walks of life: bankers, teachers, professors, coaches, maintenance workers, etc.

Earlier this year, Burkhamer noted, a Bemidji Middle School assistant principal was charged with two felonies after allegedly posing as a 13-year-old boy on social media in order to have sexual conversations with minors.

"I began to realize the magnitude of this atrocity 20 years ago in the trucking industry," David explains on Rising Hope Foundation's website (risinghopefoundation.org). "Traveling the country and seeing young girls on a regular basis being driven into truck stops and forced to go around and knock on driver's doors was a real awakening for me. It occurred to me that what I was witnessing was modern-day slavery. Many of these girls were 12 to 13 years of age or less. It broke my heart. It also stirred in me to do something to help and I knew that eventually I would want to do all I could to make a difference in rescuing these young girls."

In January 2013, David and Vicki began setting up Rising Hope Foundation and recruiting board members.

"Their hearts were really touched. It sounds like God was knocking on their door pretty hard," Burkhamer said.

Vicki states on the website, "I have spent the last four years immersed in the atrocity of human trafficking — from attending seminars and open forums to the study of the statistics surrounding this global tragedy."

She speaks in churches and to ladies' groups to bring awareness to the issue.

"It's changing, the atmosphere. There's over 1.7 million trucks on the road right now that are Truckers Against Trafficking," David said, referring to the non-profit organization that educates, equips, empowers and mobilizes the trucking industry to fight human trafficking.

"You have more people aware of the issue as truck drivers, but there's still that 20 or 30 percent" who participate in human/child commercial sex, he said.

Improving community awareness through newspapers, radio, television, billboards and other media outlets "will bring light in a dark area. It'll get the cockroaches out of there because they'll feel uncomfortable," David said. "That would be my prayer: To have more light than darkness."

Targeting troubled teens

Homeless and runaway teens are especially vulnerable. Traffickers look for susceptible youth from foster homes, alcoholic or drug-addicted parents and impoverished, low-income families.

Through force, fraud or coercion, the child is pimped out, Burkhamer said. They may be beaten, branded with tattoos, their hair color changed.

Once enslaved, girls are often given drugs and alcohol to feel "numb," resulting in addictions. Sexually transmitted diseases and other medical issues are also problems.

"They are the victims; they are not prostitutes," Burkhamer emphasized.

"That's not consensual sex," agreed Vicki.

"The heart really hurts when you think about these kids," Burkhamer said. "Most have been really emotionally manipulated and conditioned."

Initially, Rising Hope Foundation planned to open its first center in Park Rapids, where the organization owns 11 acres.

Its first fundraiser was held October 2015 at Gull Lake Campground.

"We raised quite a bit of money that night," Burkhamer said, including "a very, very, very large donation." The benefactor, who wishes to remain anonymous, requested that the money be used to build a safe house in Crow Wing County.

"A couple months ago, there were seven girls waiting for beds, so I'd say in less than 10 seconds we'll be filled when we open the doors. I'm not being factitious," Burkhamer said.

Two three-acre parcels in Bemidji were donated by a developer last year.

Once the Brainerd facility is built, it will need to be furnished. Donations are welcome.

"Our goal is to give them hope and to provide the best care possible," said Burkhamer. "There's more need than I think people are aware of."

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