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.
The Hurshes' efforts continue this week when their 306 Foundation (named after the motel-room number where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his final night) teams up with First Baptist Church of Orlando and Pastor David Uth for a briefing of regional faith leaders Wednesday.
On Friday, community leaders have been invited to the couple's new offices — in a former DUI substation off Orange Blossom Trail. (More info at 306foundation.org)
OBT is a far cry from the exotic places like Budapest, where the Hurshes once fulfilled their missions with Cru.
But they know they are where they are supposed to be. Said John: "This is an outgrowth of who we are."
Starting the journey
Jill Bolander Cohen's journey is a bit newer.
It started in 2011 when she joined other Presbyterians from Central Florida in lobbying Congress to pass the "Violence Against Women Act." She started hearing about teenagers forced into labor and sex.
At first, she didn't even want to think about such things. But the more she learned, the more she felt compelled to act. "Really," she said, "God just laid it on my heart."
So Cohen left her family's Altamonte Springs-based coffee business to focus full time on trafficking victims — specifically older teens who are no longer legal minors but still need guidance. "It's about helping people who have lost every right you can imagine."
Cohen and her Lifeboat Project are still finding their niche in this developing network of anti-trafficking nonprofits — and is willing to go wherever she is called.
On Friday, that was to help an exploited immigrant. In March, it will be to New York, where Cohen will serve as a delegate to the United Nation's 57th Commission on the Status of Women.
It's a big change for a 48-year-old former coffee executive from Apopka.
Just like working in an industrial area off Orange Blossom Trail is for the Hurshes, who used to travel the globe.
But the issue of child labor and sex slavery is evolving. And so is the face of those fighting to end it.
Saturday, Jan. 26, marks the fifth annual Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Awareness Day, noon to 4 p.m. at Lake Eola Park. For more information, call 407-495-5846 or visit floridaawarenessday.org.
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