At first glance, collecting canned food may seem like an odd way for a church to help stop human trafficking.
But Greg Chevalier, the chairman of outreach ministry for Brookhaven Christian Church, explained that there are many things that can make children more susceptible to becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation, including hunger.
“When a child is hungry, they’re more vulnerable to receive a gift from a stranger and that builds trust,” Chevalier said.
On March 16, Brookhaven Christian Church will host an event on behalf of the statewide Street Grace ministry to assemble “blessing bags” – backpacks filled with non-perishable food items to give to children in the Tri-Cities High School cluster over spring break.
According to Street Grace, 58 percent of kids in Georgia public schools receive free or reduced lunches.
Chevalier said the Tri-Cities school cluster, in south Fulton County, has a high number of students receiving free or reduced lunches, many of whom may not have access to regular meals outside of school. “That cluster has the highest degree of potential vulnerability,” Chevalier said.
With spring break coming up, Chevalier said, those children will have a week without lunches at school.
“Our objective is to pack lunches, non-perishable food items, into backpacks and provide them to students at Tri-Cities schools that are going on spring break,” Chevalier said.
Several churches in the Reporter Newspapers communities of Buckhead, Brookhaven, Sandy Springs and Dunwoody participate in the Street Grace ministry.
“We are an alliance of Christian churches, and our main focus is to organize churches to get mobilized, and educate them about commercial sexual exploitation of children,” said Street Grace Programs Director Amy Walters.
Walters said the organization was formed four years ago by church leaders who were concerned about the number of children and teenagers becoming victims of the commercial sex trade in metro Atlanta.
The organization aims to generate awareness about the commercial sexual exploitation of children and provide resources for nonprofit organizations that help victims.
“The church is full of people who care. They just didn’t know what to do and where to go,” Walters said. “As we help educate people to what they can do, we point them in directions where they can have a positive impact.”
Walters said in addition to fighting hunger, the organization has several other initiatives for 2013.
Street Grace is working with the Department of Education to train speakers who will reach out to parent-teacher organizations to educate them about ways kids can be lured into the commercial sex trade.
“It really can be as simple as my child goes to a shopping mall and someone approaches them with a business card and says, ‘Your makeup looks great. I want to hire you,’” Walters said. “We always think it’s the white van that’s going to drive up and drag our child off. It’s not going to happen like that.”
Chevalier said it’s important for people to learn what a big problem human trafficking is in Atlanta.
He said there’s a misconception that the problem is confined to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. In fact, Chevalier said, a large percentage of transactions happen outside the Perimeter.
“It’s not the degenerate individual down by the airport living in the streets. It’s not the international businessman with no ethics or morals traveling in. That’s a nominal part of the issue,” Chevalier said.
Chevalier said it’s a large and complex issue to tackle.
“It’s supply and it’s demand,” Chevalier said. “In order to fulfill the demand of individuals that purchase children for sex, there has to be supply. And in order for there to be supply, one must entice a child into the program.”
Chevalier said Street Grace hopes that by providing food for kids over spring break, it may help to make them less vulnerable to predators.
On March 16, volunteers are invited to Brookhaven Christian Church to help assemble the blessing bags from 9:30 a.m. to noon. Volunteers are asked to register online at http://streetgrace.org/events/quarterly-serve-learn-volunteer-day/ to bring an item to donate.
“Anybody can volunteer with us,” Walters said. “Just because we are a group of churches doesn’t mean you have to be affiliated with a church to volunteer.”