Riding to the rescue

Seeing Despair, Offering Hope

Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.

Read that again.

More than drugs, more than laundered money, more than illegal arms – it’s the owning and selling of human beings that is keeping international law enforcement officials the busiest.

And according to the organization Doctors at War, of the more than 27 million trapped in this new slavery, 13 million of them are children – and by children, they mean between the ages of 12-17, with 12-14 being the average age of entry into the sex trade.

As awful and as daunting as it is, you might be wondering, why am I reading about this in a geology magazine?

Because one of our own – AAPG member Steven Shirley, a manager in Earth Science Technical Relations at Chevron Global Upstream and Gas in Houston – is trying to do something about it.

“We became aware of the issue when we lived in Thailand,” Shirley said of he and his wife, Natalie, “and we realized it was a domestic issue as well as an international one when we came back to the states.”

AAPG member Stephen Shirley and his wife, Natalie, who help battle human trafficking via an initiative they helped start called NightLight.
AAPG member Stephen Shirley and his wife, Natalie, who help battle human trafficking via an initiative they helped start called NightLight.

But the couple’s sensitivity to the debasing world of human trafficking had its roots in Bangkok, where they were based from 2001-08. They were horrified – and, paradoxically, perhaps, inspired to wade into that world, in an attempt to make a difference.

The desire became a reality when Natalie and four of her friends started NightLight International in Bangkok, to “find a way to combat human trafficking,” Shirley said.

The mission is the same: To effect change within the global sex industry, which is a polite way of saying its job is to locate and rescue those in slavery.

Once that occurs – and it’s no small feat – NightLight then offers intervention, training, jobs … and hope.

“She (Natalie) and her cohorts are definitely the stars here, not me,” Shirley insisted. “I am on the advocacy, support and sweat labor side of the equation.”

He is modest.

But Natalie elaborates: There was a woman – “I want to call her ‘K,’” she said – who the couple encountered in Thailand who for the longest time would rescue other girls there, but would not leave the trade herself.

“Eventually, she did,” Natalie said, “but that woman was quite an influence on me and my husband.”

The Girl Next Door

The human trafficking numbers are staggering – internationally, in the United States and, particularly, in Houston.

Approximately 20,000 of those who are trafficked every year come into the United States – many through Texas. The Department of Justice says the state – in large measure because of U.S. Interstate 10, which dissects the state east and west and is the country’s fourth-longest interstate highway – is the number one route for human trafficking.

Natalie Shirley (in pink, third from left) and some of women involved in the NightLight initiative.
Natalie Shirley (in pink, third from left) and some of women involved in the NightLight initiative.

In 2007, 30 percent of the calls received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline were out of Texas, and 25 percent of all international victims certified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services were in Texas.

More troubling, right now it is estimated that between 8,000 and 24,000 American children are enslaved in Texas. And make no mistake, when you’re talking human trafficking, you’re talking sexual slaves who are children.

Where do victims come from? In this country, many times, from next door. According to National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children, there are over 6,000 runaways in Houston.

And that, Shirley says, is a problem – and often it’s the first problem.

“One of every three children who run away is lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home,” he said.

So where does one begin to address a problem so overwhelming?

“They started,” Shirley said of Natalie and her friends, “with a box of beads and one girl in a McDonalds.”

The beads are important, for one of the ways the organization helps these girls, as mentioned, is providing them skills, getting them jobs – in this case, making jewelry.

“The challenges are mostly financial,” Shirley said. “Women in Thailand support their families – that’s the culture – so rescuing girls (there) from the sex trade without giving them another option of support is only half the battle.

“And that is why, for example, the jewelry is so important,” he said. “It provides that.”

Helping Hands

And little by little, a job here, a success there, the program grows. In the United States, NightLight, which has been featured in a National Geographic special on trafficking, is now in Atlanta, Branson, Mo., and Los Angeles, and has between 60-80 survivors employed in Thailand making jewelry.”

“The reason there is a location in Branson has to do with the tourist industry in that part of Missouri, and it’s a poor area that lends itself to such trafficking,” Natalie Shirley said.

“There’s no NightLight in Houston because Redeemed Ministries is there,” she adds. “We work with them, because I thought the efforts would just be redundant.”

The organization’s heart, though, is in Houston, because that’s where Steven and Natalie Shirley are.

“My employer Chevron has been gracious to match some of my financial donations as well as match my donated times with cash donations through the Chevron’s Humankind program, which encourages volunteerism and involvement in the employees community,” Steven said.

Additionally, the Shirleys work with three groups:

NightLight.

Redeemed Ministries, which is an all-volunteer organization that includes a holistic approach to outreach, aftercare and advocacy.

Freedom Place, which provides a comprehensive place for care and recovery for underage female victims of sexual abuse.

For Steven Shirley, the victories are measured, literally, one child at a time.

“Prior to Freedom Place opening this year,” he said, “there were only 80 beds in the United States dedicated to domestic minor victims of trafficking.”

Obviously, he does this work to do good, to right a wrong, to give something back.

But it’s also a way to remember his father.

“My dad who was a geologist taught me that you should never be satisfied with sitting on the sidelines,” he said, “but we should wade in.

“He instilled his service and volunteer ethic in all, as he didn’t just talk the talk but he walked the walk.”

The son listened.

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