TRINITY — It’s isolated from big-city trappings and insulated by a caring private-school setting.
So, why should little old Trinity College of Florida be worried about the growing epidemic of human trafficking?
“You’d think that being this innocent and beautiful little campus, nestled in our own little world, we’d be safe from such a thing, but we’re not,” said Leslie Tombleson-Rewald, co-director of psychology and counseling at the college. “Our college faced a situation where we had a potential victim and a close call. I have heard that some students, and the friends of some students, have been approached by people involved in this.”
As long as the Internet exists, she said, the young people at Trinity must remain on guard.
“That’s why no one is safe,” Tombleson-Rewald said. “There’s so much money involved in this and there is so much temptation.”
In preparing for a Feb.2 candlelight vigil on her campus that she hopes brings awareness to the risk, Tombleson-Rewald continues to monitor the staggering numbers associated with the problem ¬— one that often incorporates prostitution, nude dancing, pornography and drugs. In extreme cases, people are kidnapped and drugged and forced into a world of sex slavery. She said there is now evidence that it’s the mafia’s newest pursuit.
“More than 300,000 people 18-years-old and above are victimized by this,” she said. “And here at home, it’s more prevalent than in most places. I believe Tampa Bay has the second-highest ratio in the country of people becoming victims. There are more than 23,000 sexual-solicitation sites in our region alone.
“And in our (Pasco) county, a lot of massage parlors and other storefronts are actually covers for operations of prostitution. It happens that close to us.”
The vigil is being organized with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and is being called “Light up the Night.” It will run 6-8:30 p.m. and feature musical artist Jonny Diaz. It is free, but donations are encouraged. They will benefit organizations that support human-trafficking survivors. Tombleson-Rewald said she’s expecting as many as 2,000 students and community members to attend.
“We are putting that much of an emphasis on this problem,” she said. “We are getting the word out.”
The efforts are going beyond the campus. The college is not only dedicated to teaching its students how to be on the lookout for the red flags, it is going out into the community through its Heart Against Trafficking program.
Tombleson-Rewald’s daughter Kelly, a Trinity College senior, is president of the group. It visits area schools and churches to spread the message, and those visits now include middle schools.
“Sadly, we’re having to talk to kids as young as 12 because the victims get younger and younger,” Tombleson-Rewald said. “We want them to know at a young age what human-trafficking recruitment looks like and how it can be avoided.”
Kelly Rewald, who is studying to be a counselor like her mother, finds the discussions with young people “challenging, but also very rewarding.”
“It’s hard to communicate how serious this is without scaring them,” she said, “You don’t want them to mistrust everyone they see on the street.
“But the problem is so strong that you have to keep it real and get their attention.”
Rewald said she often emphasizes the importance of values, talking about “things they don’t have to do” in life to get her point across.
Her biggest reaction?
“They say they didn’t even know it was happening in our country, and certainly not right here in our county,” she said. “Most people think it only goes on in Third World nations. They only know about human trafficking because of the ‘Taken’ films with Liam Neeson.”