Fighting teenage prostitution in America's fantasy land

Some of the people who fascinate me most are those who stop everything they are doing, midlife, to follow a calling.

The CEO who wants to teach kindergarten. The former Marine who becomes a social worker.

Here in Central Florida, I'm seeing a new trend of successful executives doing something similar — leaving established careers to help some of Orlando's most tragic victims: teenage girls forced into prostitution.

They are people like John and Jane Hursh, successful execs at Campus Crusade for Christ who left the comforts of a mega-charity for an upstart office consisting of former holding cells off Orange Blossom Trail.

And women like Jill Bolander Cohen, who abandoned a VP position at her family's coffee business to spend time with women trying to escape violent pimps.

These are the new faces on the front lines in the battle against human trafficking — a filthy practice that thrives in the shadows of Orlando's fantasy lands.

For many people, the concept of modern-day slavery is hard to believe.

Yet the stories are everywhere. They run under headlines such as "Orlando man sentenced to 22 years for employing teens as prostitutes" and "Palm Bay man forced 14-year-old runaway into prostitution."

Modern-day slavery doesn't involve chains and handcuffs, but rather cellphones, Internet ads and cash.

Often, the victims are girls — as young as 10 — who have left home; runaways and victims who are desperate for help. That's where the predators come in — offering shelter and comfort at first but later replacing kind words with harsh demands: Either turn tricks or get hurt.

Federal officials rank Florida third in America for sexual exploitation and forced labor.

The problem is so severe that state officials estimate that, at any given time, 100 of the kids in foster care are victims of sex trafficking.

And Central Florida is in the thick of it — partly because Orlando is a supposed to be a place where children's dreams come true. And any place that attracts children also attracts those who prey upon them.

A new life

John and Jane Hursh had learned about the problem while in their jobs at Campus Crusade for Christ (now called "Cru"). And the more they learned, the more they decided they had to be involved.

"After you know, it's hard to continue living the same way," Jane said.

It's a common theme among these modern-day abolitionists. They say that once their eyes were opened to the horrors around them, they couldn't close them anymore.

So these Winter Park parents of three healthy teenagers decided to dedicate their lives toward helping kids who had no one.

Because of their jobs and roots, the Hurshes had connections. So they began by reaching out to some of the region's other influential minds. They started coordinating "executive briefings" where FBI, MBI and nonprofit leaders explained the problem to local CEOs, pastors, elected officials and thought leaders.

Their goal: to awaken the community. To help people learn to recognize the problem (that many prostitutes, especially the youngest ones, are more likely to be victims than criminals). And to provide real-world help — safe havens for girls to stay and resources for those trying to escape.