Human trafficking is closer to home than you might think.
Joy Fopma, co-founder of Iowa Falls-based Wings of Refuge, spoke at a recent gathering in the Sacred Heart Church Parish Hall in Osage.
Wings of Refuge is a Christ-centered, non-profit organization serving women age 18 and older who are survivors of sex trafficking.
The organization operates a safe house in an undisclosed location for these young women.
Six years ago Fopma watched a documentary on human trafficking titled "Nefarious: Merchant of Souls."
"It just really broke my heart as to what was happening with men, women and children all over the world," she said.
Fopma joined a group of people praying for sex trafficking victims, which led to the formation of Wings of Refuge.
Today more than 27 million people around the world are slaves, and 80 percent of them are sexually exploited, Fopma said.
In America, human trafficking is happening in every state, she said.
The average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation is 11 to 14 years old, according to Fopma.
She said prostitution is often portrayed as a choice, and although that might be true for a minority, "11 to 14-year-old children are not ready to choose their career path."
Children who are targeted by traffickers often have vulnerabilities such as coming from a life of poverty, having a history of neglect or being a victim of physical or sexual abuse in the home, according to Fopma.
Sometimes they are simply lonely and are looking for a father figure or a friend, she said.
Pimps come in and fill whatever needs these young people have and get them to trust them so they can take advantage, according to Fopma.
She said the life expectancy of a trafficked person after the exploitation begins is just seven years. Causes of death include murder by a pimp or a purchaser, suicide, drug overdose or undernourishment.
Fopma said Iowa is "a perfect storm" when it comes to human trafficking because Interstates 35 and 80 both pass through the state.
Human traffickers taking those they exploit from one large city to another, such as from Chicago to Minneapolis, will sometimes stop in Iowa to make some money along the way, according to Fopma.
Human trafficking takes many forms, including someone selling a family member for sex. Fopma said familial trafficking is happening in Iowa.
The first Wings of Refuge safe house only had room for three women at a time. The organization recently opened a new home with room for five women.
Some of the survivors are from Iowa, while some are from other states.
Fopma said safe houses operated by other organizations around the county are set up for men or male or female children who are survivors of sex trafficking.
The young women who arrive at the Wings of Refuge safe home begin healing right away, according to Fopma.
Their first night of being able to sleep in a bedroom without someone coming in to exploit them is "a game-changer" for survivors, according to Fopma.
Women can stay at Wings of Refuge for up to two years.
While they are in the safe home, which is staffed around the clock, they receive therapy and work toward their educational and vocational goals.
Fopma said no one is required to convert, but the young women are given the opportunity to explore faith in Jesus.
They also participate in activities they may have missed out on growing up.
"They sing karaoke loud and off-key," Fopma said.
The survivors also carve pumpkins and go sledding.
Wings of Refuge is making plans to build a transitional living center where survivors can go after their two years in the safe home are over. Fopma said this will give them a chance to experience more independence.
She said those who wish to help can pray for Wings of Refuge, donate to the organization, talk to others about it, or serve as a volunteer.
Fopma also encouraged those attending the presentation to open their hearts to young people who are vulnerable.
She said survivors have told her things would have been different for them if someone had seen them as something other than a "problem kid" and asked them, "What happened to you?" rather than, "What's wrong with you?"
For more information on Wings of Refuge, visit www.wingsofrefuge.net.