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Local museum director helps victims of human trafficking
Lauren M. Wilson - Thursday, March 14, 2013 8:08 AM
Originally published March 11, 2013.
"I used to think, like most Americans do, ‘Slavery ended in the 1800s.'
"But that's wrong. It is still prevalent today," says Sarah Schmidt.
Schmidt, director of the Huntington County Historical Museum, is speaking of her travels overseas in Latvia, where she worked with women of all ages who are victims of human trafficking or are working in the sex industry.
She says she became interested in reaching out to victims of human trafficking, or those working in prostitution or the sex industry, while she was studying overseas three years ago in the Netherlands.
"We were 20 minutes from Amsterdam," she recalls.
Here, she was exposed to the infamous Red Light District, an area in Amsterdam heavy with sex-oriented businesses. The district is aptly named after the red lights that signal a brothel is open for business.
She says her awareness of human trafficking started there, but she had no idea how to work with it.
That is, until one year ago, when Schmidt says she heard of a mission that serves women who work as dancers in the adult entertainment industry.
The local mission, Heart of Mercies, visits six of the nine clubs in the Fort Wayne area that employ the dancers.
She says she has spent time in each of the clubs, trying to spread the message that "the love of Christ is more beautiful than what they are doing now."
Schmidt says she is encouraged to know some of the women are "seeking something better."
She also says she has developed "some great friendships" with a few of the women.
While working with Heart of Mercies, Schmidt realized her desire to return to Europe.
She says she preformed a Google search looking for overseas missions, and the third result was a mission called Freedom 61 - the mission she ended up traveling to Latvia with.
Freedom 61 is not a well-known program in the U.S. or overseas, so seeing it show up on her Google search "was a total God thing," she says.
Freedom 61 is an outreach program sponsored by Youth With A Mission - a Christian international volunteer movement.
Schmidt says she contacted the leader of Freedom 61 and was told they'd love to have her visit.
Schmidt and a friend, Regan Reimschisel, traveled to Latvia together, and spent three weeks working with Freedom 61.
From Jan. 9 to Jan. 30, the pair worked with the overseas mission to offer assistance to women who are being trafficked or choose to work in the sex industry.
Twice a week, Schmidt traveled the streets of Riga, the capital of Latvia, and offered soup, muffins, coffee and tea to the women working on them.
She says she also helped run a café owned by Freedom 61 that invites women to visit and get warm - Schmidt says the temperature in Latvia is typically in the negative digits - and have a meal.
She also traveled with Reimschisel to a local school and spoke to young teen girls about using awareness and caution to avoid entrapment.
Schmidt says all ages of women are working the streets of Latvia as prostitutes, from 18 to 60.
She says one woman was nine months pregnant and still working in prostitution every night.
The women typically wore "not warm enough" clothes, she says, with only one pair of tights, gloves and light coats in the frigid below-zero temperatures.
She notes that prostitution is legal in Latvia, as it is in most European countries.
Schmidt recalls the weekends being filled with sex tourists and watching the transactions, feeling "helpless."
The real tragedy, she says, is that the money earned by the women is typically feeding a drug addiction.
Schmidt says most of the women are addicted to heroin, something she could tell by looking at their hands, which she says become "gray, swollen and ashen."
She says typically two to seven taxis surround the area where the prostitutes work, but they are not real taxis - they are they to sell drugs to the women.
"It is a known fact and it just happens," she explains.
Freedom 61 also reaches out to the sex tourists, Schmidt says, hoping to educate them about the vicious cycle funded by their purchases.
Not only does their money feed the drug addiction, Schmidt says, but it just the act of buying and selling sex has huge psychological issues.
Schmidt says she just wants to "let them (the women) know they are loved."
She also says this is a huge issue everywhere, "even in America."
Human trafficking is the number two organized crime, she says, second only to drugs.
There are things everyone can do to help, though, she says.
She suggests being conscious consumers and knowing product lines; using information from applications and websites such as "Free to Work" and "Not for Sale;" doing research; and even getting involved in the Northeast Indiana Taskforce Against Human Trafficking.
She says there are many local missions who work with women who are exploited - big and small, Christian and atheist.
"We love these women no matter what they choose," she says.
Schmidt says she plans to go back to Latvia and will work closely with Freedom 61 from home until her return trip.
"It (human trafficking) happens everywhere," she says, "You don't have to go to Latvia to figure that out."
Complete caption: Sarah Schmidt (left) , director of the Huntington County Historical Museum and her friend, Regan Reimschisel prepare chicken and vegetable soup for a cafe in Riga, Latvia, run by the mission Freedom 61 that offers aid to women who are working in the sex industry or victims of human trafficking. Schmidt spent three weeks in Riga in January serving the mission.