Editor’s note: This article first published in the spring edition of Beyond the Meeting Room, ALHI’s printed magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication focused on sharing compelling, inspirational and educational stories from beyond the four walls of a meeting room.
The International Labour Organization estimates that 28 million people globally are trafficked every year. In the U.S. in 2021,10,359 situations of human trafficking were reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline involving 16,554 individual victims, according to Polaris, an organization that operates the hotline and works to end human trafficking. Polaris reports it’s very likely these numbers are only a fraction of the issue.
Theresa Flores, a survivor of human trafficking, is founder of the SOAP Project. SOAP stands for Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution.
She was an all-American teenager who survived two years of being a sex slave while living at home in an upper-middle-class Michigan suburb. Thirty years later, she’s a licensed social worker with a master’s degree in education and a speaker who educates the public on human trafficking in the U.S. while showing how a person can endure horrific conditions and not only survive but thrive.
Flores launched the SOAP Project’s outreach in 2010 at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, Texas. A team of volunteers delivered 10,000 bars of soap wrapped with the trafficking hotline phone number to area hotels to place in their guest rooms.
“It was really successful,” Flores said. “It was a small outreach for us because we were just getting out there, but we found the hotels and staff were really receptive.”
The SOAP Project has made its way to 12 Super Bowls and other sporting events around the U.S.; more than 2 million bars of soap have been handed out since 2010. While delivering the soap, Flores and her team spend a few minutes with the hotels’ front desk staffs to explain human trafficking and leave cards and mousepads with red flag indicators and the hotline information “so they could have it right at their fingertips.”
Human trafficking is a difficult topic to discuss, but it is imperative that we do.
“I know how difficult it is to engage people in trafficking awareness and trafficking advocacy,” said Lori Cohen, Chief Executive Officer of ECPAT-USA, the leading anti-child-trafficking organization in the U.S.
“People struggle with believing that this is actually happening in their own community,” Cohen said. “It’s happening in all sorts of hotels, it’s not just one particular type of hotel (like) drive-up motels, and mom and pop motels,” she continued. “It’s happening in luxury resorts, it’s happening in long-term stay hotels, it’s happening at exclusive hotels on 5th Avenue, it’s happening everywhere. Theresa is able to share that with her audiences in a way that is relatable.”
To help bring awareness, Marriott International provided two of their human trafficking trainings to ECPAT-USA “with the explicit agreement that it would be free to anyone to access,” Cohen said.
Since ECPAT-USA launched the online trainings in February 2020, they have been accessed about 800,000 times; the trainings are available in 17 languages.
“We want all hotels to be able to access this. All hotels, all motels, all bed and breakfast, anybody who is in the lodging industry,” Cohen said. “We want to make awareness about this issue front and center for all individuals working in the hospitality industry.”
Human Trafficking Myths vs. Reality
Myth: Only women and girls can be victims and survivors of sex trafficking.
Reality: Men and boys are also victimized by sex traffickers. LGBTQ boys and young men are seen as particularly vulnerable to trafficking.
Myth: Traffickers target victims they don’t know.
Reality: Many survivors have been trafficked by romantic partners, including spouses, and by family members, including parents.
Myth: Human trafficking only happens in illegal or underground industries.
Reality: Human trafficking cases have been reported and prosecuted in industries including restaurants, cleaning services, construction, factories and more.
The SOAP Project has more than 20 local chapters nationwide and depends on volunteers to spread its message. OPPOSITE: Theresa Flores, founder of the SOAP Project.
To report suspected human trafficking, call the police, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, 1-888-373-7888, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find more resources on human trafficking here.