Demonstration held in Sunken Gardens on Thursday as part of World Day Against Human Trafficking

ATASCADERO — Nearly 200 people gathered Thursday morning in Sunken Gardens to bring awareness to human trafficking.

July 30 was World Day Against Human Trafficking, not to be confused with Human Trafficking Awareness Day, held in January. “Rise Up For Children” was the theme of the awareness campaign initiated by Operation Underground Railroad. It was painted on signs and printed on blue T-shirts.

OUR is a nonprofit founded by Tim Ballard and Mark Stott, which assists governments worldwide in the rescue of human trafficking and sex trafficking victims, with a particular focus on children.

“We at OUR truly believe your voice and influence will help inspire others to join us in the fight against modern-day slavery,” said local event organizer and spokesperson Alyssa Lewis. “Child trafficking is not a conspiracy theory. It is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world. 2020 has been a horrific year for our children.”

Getting through this together, Atascadero

Lewis provided some grim facts and statistics on human trafficking as it relates to children specifically.

• A minor is sexually abused in the US every 3 minutes.

• The average age of a teen that enters the sex trade in the US is 13 years old.

• Infants as young as 6 months old have been rescued from sexual abuse and trafficking.

• Globally, sex trafficking generates an estimated $99 billion each year and close to $10 billion annually in the US.

• 77 percent of trafficking victims are exploited within their community.

• Since COVID-19 hit, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has experienced a 90.46 percent increase in Cyber Tipline reports between January and June of 2020, versus the same time period in 2019.

“We will not let these children continue to be overlooked,” Lewis said. “Because these vulnerable children cannot rally up to fight for themselves, we need to stand up and be their voice. It’s time for us to rise up and get loud for them now.”

Passionate guest speakers, including San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow, spoke to the crowd before peacefully marching south on El Camino Real crossing at Morro Road and looping north on El Camino Real back to Sunken Gardens.

Dow talked about a harrowing and “eye-opening” human trafficking case in 2013, involving two teenagers, 15 and 16 years old. It led him to form the San Luis Obispo County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force shortly before being elected DA.

Fresno Bulldog gang members kidnapped the two young women, and for over two months, they were trafficked over multiple counties against their will, Dow said.

“They were beaten, they were given drugs, they were raped by their captors and then forced to be sold to purchasers in multiple counties before ending up here,” Dow said. “One of those ultimate survivors was brave enough, strong enough and courageous enough to get away in the middle of the night, one night from a hotel in San Luis Obispo.”

She called her mom for help, Dow said, and this led to multi-agencies — FBI, and San Luis Obispo and Fresno police departments — finding and freeing the second young woman from her captors.

This led to the task force, whose mission is three-fold, Dow said.

“One is to educate the community with events like this so that people understand it’s actually happening and it’s not a myth,” Dow said. “Two, it’s to educate law enforcement and help them have the right tools that they need to proactively go out and hunt down the predators selling other human beings and then to support victims.”

Support for victims is available through various Central Coast agencies, Dow said, including the Women’s Shelter Program San Luis Obispo, RISE, the Christopher G. Money Victim-Witness Assistance Center and the North County Abolitionists.

Susan Carter of North County Abolitionists encouraged people to do what they could to help. NCA is based in Templeton and has a Facebook page and website The mission of the faith-based group is to “expose and assist in the eradication of human trafficking in our community through awareness and education, while working to help restore victims to a life of hope.”

Colony Magazine and Atascadero News co-Publisher Nicholas Mattson told the crowd that he would be involved with this cause personally and bring awareness through the publications.

A group of local moms led by Lewis, Christa Abma, Katherine Fazio, Mariika Tidwell, and Mel Heinemann were the driving force behind the local event.

Each expressed learning about human trafficking and wanting to bring greater awareness to the criminal activity happening on the Central Coast and across the globe but said they could not do it alone. Their like-minded drive and determination brought them together two weeks ago, and in that time, they organized the local demonstration.

“This has been a cause that has been dear and near to me because I am a mother of five, and it’s not just for my kids’ safety but future grandkids’ safety,” said Abma, who is a mortgage lender with Infinity Mortgage. She provided tips for children and parents to keep them safe from a possible human trafficker.

• Run, don’t walk to safety.

• Learn the difference between an OK and not OK secret. And be aware of any adult that asks you to keep a secret from your parents.

• Don’t let anyone on the phone or at the door know that you are home alone.

• If you ever get lost, ask the closest store clerk for help and stay there until help arrives.

• Avoid shortcuts when walking from one place to another.

• If you ever get scooped up, scream, kick and fight as hard as you can to get away.

Fazio, who grew up in Germany, has been working with victims of human trafficking for 15 years through the Christian nonprofit organization — Unstoppable Love International. The group operates a safe house and uses it to get people away from harm.

“It’s a really, really long process and you have to have patience, but it is so worth it to see when they are free and get the healing they need,” Fazio said. “We have sad cases where it doesn’t turn out good, but there are so many amazing cases.”

Following the demonstration, the local organizers said they were pleased with the turnout and contemplated their next steps.

“I’m still in a little bit of a state of shock. I was not expecting this great of a turnout,” Lewis said. “My hope is that with the success of this demonstration, we will be able to move forward with getting more community outreach, having more local community support. I believe it was a great event. We will be doing more.”

Local Resources
• Police, fire and emergency medical – 911
• National Human Trafficking Hotline – 888-373-7888
• Central Coast Freedom Network – 785-251-3733
• 211 of San Luis Obispo – 211
• County Adult Protective Services – 805-781-1790
• County Child Welfare Services – 805-781-1700
• Women’s Shelter Program San Luis Obispo – 805-781-6400
• RISE – 805-886-7473
• Christopher G. Money Victim-Witness Assistance Center – 805-781-5821
• North County Abolitionists – 805-296-2317
• National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – 800-843-5678.