BOARD MEMBER Patty Carley, who runs the Her Treasure Box store for Eyes Wide Open, stands outsidethe storefront with Eyes Wide Open founder Debbie Fowler.
BOARD MEMBER Patty Carley, who runs the Her Treasure Box store for Eyes Wide Open, stands outsidethe storefront with Eyes Wide Open founder Debbie Fowler.
Human trafficking often isn't thought of as a problem here in America, said Sister Francine Dempsey, CSJ.

Her religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, sponsors a Coalition to End Human Trafficking. The coalition holds annual prayer services to pray for and remember victims of human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

"It happens right in everybody's backyard," Sister Francine told The Evangelist -- even, she said, in the Diocese of Albany.

The Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking (CCOAHT), an umbrella organization, is a group of more than 20 international Catholic agencies dedicated to ending human trafficking. CCOAHT provides safe havens for teens and young adults who have been trafficked in the United States and meets with government officials to create public policies that combat human trafficking.

CCOAHT asks consumers to make moral purchases. Human trafficking can be unwittingly supported: for instance, when products are imported into the United States, exploited and trafficked people have often had a hand in the import process, having done the manual labor -- as slaves -- to create the products and get them to America.

The Polaris Project, a global effort to help spread awareness and end human trafficking and sex trafficking, reports that there are about 20.9 million victims of human trafficking worldwide -- a $150 billion industry. It estimates that 68 percent of people who have been trafficked are trapped in forced labor. About a quarter of those are children; more than half are women and girls.

For Debbie Fowler, founder of Eyes Wide Open of Northeast New York, a not-for-profit organization based out of Schenectady, human trafficking is something she has seen up close.

While her husband, John, worked in Kuwait for several years, Mrs. Fowler also lived there and met women living in modern-day slavery. She helped to find artistic outlets for the women, who had suffered trauma due to sex trafficking and human trafficking.

"A lot of these girls were swept from the streets of their small villages and sold to sponsors," Mrs. Fowler reported in "Fragrance in the Desert," a book she wrote after her experience. She said she learned how widespread the problem was for domestic workers who had been trafficked.

When she came back to the Albany Diocese, she founded Eyes Wide Open. The organization pledges to "provide restorative care and a sanctuary of healing and hope for women and survivors of sex trafficking."

By cultivating a community of advocates, Eyes Wide Open hopes to eventually have a local house where survivors of trafficking can find support and shelter.

At the moment, Eyes Wide Open offers community outreach and classes and operates a craft supply store, Her Treasure Box, in Schenectady. Donors provide skeins of yarn or extra yards of fabric; customers can buy the goods at a discount, allowing the store to pay its rent and sponsor events focused on journaling or sewing.

"We have had several women who have come into the shop to share their stories," Mrs. Fowler told The Evangelist. Many are survivors of human trafficking have moved on with their lives despite the trauma.

The Sisters of St. Joseph's Coalition to End Human Trafficking partners with Eyes Wide Open to support Mrs. Fowler's work. Sister Francine, who serves on the board of Eyes Wide Open, leads groups in journaling exercises at the store.

Finding ways to heal and grow are imperative for all women, especially those who have faced such trauma, she noted.

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