Source: The Daniel Island News
By Jennifer Johnston
May 30, 2012 - 9:49:44 AM
Holly Lynch with 14 month-old Camilla. "Before our help, if her mom (a 15 year-old Costa Rican girl) didn't continue to participate in sex trafficking," Holly reports, "Camilla wouldn't have diapers, and she wouldn't have rice and beans."
Seeds of Hope teaches the Costa Rican girls to make Tica Toes to sell in retail stores and tourist stops. The money earned helps keep them off the streets.
Holly Lynch should be on the fast-track to an executive office, corporate perks, and a company-matched 401(k). Packed with strong ambition and clear goals, she moved to the Lowcountry from Georgia to get her MBA from The Citadel, and graduated three years ago. As an executive team lead for Target in Charleston, she’s every bit the business whiz she’d envisioned herself becoming. With an on-track career and healthy income, she was able to treat herself to a vacation with friends to sunny Costa Rica this past January. And it was there, ironically, that her track met a junction.
Within the first few hours of her Costa Rican getaway, Lynch noticed a number of young local girls in the company of American tourist men. No one had to point it out to her; it was that obvious, and that pervasive. Days later, during a visit to a church in the town of Quepos, Lynch met Claire Brackmann, a social worker and former Peace Corps volunteer who was, coincidentally, in the early stages of planning a center for girls involved in sex trafficking. This struck a chord with Lynch, who had volunteered at the Lowcountry Pregnancy Center and had developed an interest in the wellness of young women. And the feeling of fate was not lost on her. Brackmann invited Lynch to get involved, and a vacation made a steep veer toward a vocation.
Upon returning home, Lynch kept in close contact with Brackmann and Penny Williams, the Director of Hands Up High Ministries in California and veteran missionary in Costa Rica. Williams had met a sex trafficking victim during a mission trip last fall, befriended and helped her, and gained access to dozens of other young female victims who were otherwise living in shadows. Just a few weeks ago, Lynch returned to Costa Rica, and spent time with several of them. “When I met these girls for the first time, I knew I could not turn away,” she recalls. “They want help so badly.”
The girls shared with Lynch that they had first been raped between the ages of six and eight, and life being rented out to foreign men became the only one they knew. Today, they “work” weekends, earning $50 to $60 of survival money per night. A Costa Rican social worker attested to easy recognition of the girls involved in this trafficking: they are falling asleep in class and not in school on Fridays.
A sizeable percentage of tourism in certain provinces of Costa Rica is attributed to what has been termed “sex vacations.” Lynch explained, “Men go for fishing vacations, and ‘rent’ a girl for a week.” And by girl, she means child.
Prostitution is not illegal in Costa Rica, but it is unlawful where it is not between consenting adults age 18 or older. At issue here is the kind of tourism where travelers, typically adult male, are drawn to the fact that pre-pubescent girls are made available to them – through hotels, nightclubs, even cab drivers – for a mere $50 a night, with a low perceived risk of STD or pregnancy. These girls are sold out for commercial sexual exploitation. They have been forced into this way of life as modern-day slaves. And that is human trafficking.
Many of these girls are bartered or coerced into this trade by their own parents. In so many cases, the father is in jail, or was a tourist himself and is long gone. The mothers often sell themselves with their daughters as a “team,” or place a heavy burden upon their young girls to make money so that siblings don’t go hungry. Alternatives are almost non-existent; they live in government housing miles outside of town, so their only option for employment is the car that picks them up once a day, takes them to bars in the city, and returns them home late-night or at the end of a weekend.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of State placed Costa Rica on its Tier 2 Watch List, finding that the “government did not demonstrate evidence of overall increasing efforts over the previous reporting period.” There appears to be corruption at worst, cover-up at best, within many of the Latin American country’s government offices and agencies. In fact, while Lynch was vacationing there in January, the mayor of Quepos was released on bail for charges of human trafficking. Over 600 pornographic recordings had been found in his possession, and he had used government funds to “recruit” the children in the videos. This is in stark contrast to the flyers posted in airports, reminding travelers that solicitation of a minor is illegal. The fact remains that underage prostitution is a multimillion dollar industry in Costa Rica.
The young female victims are not entirely without advocates. The Costa Rican child protective services, federal law enforcement, and health department are always on the lookout, but rescuing these girls provides only a temporary fix. Once they are extricated from an exploitative situation, the best case scenario is that they spend a couple nights in a hospital. But with no stable home to which they can return, they are typically released back to the streets.
So Lynch, Brackmann, and Williams are partnering to give these girls more stable advocacy. They are building a home for them, the first of its kind to be licensed by PANI, Costa Rica’s child protection services. They have garnered input and support from physicians, psychologists, attorneys, and every necessary government agency, and the program, called Seeds of Hope, will operate as a 501(c)3 under Hands of Hope Ministries. They will be able to shelter, rehabilitate, and educate twelve girls at a time in four residential “pods” and one classroom. The girls have been selected based on need, giving priority to those with babies and those considered most emotionally at-risk. Seeds of Hope has a partnership with the Department of Education allowing for the girls to complete self-paced programs with weekly DOE check-in.
“Due to their circumstances, they are very behind in their level of education, and the school is extremely dangerous.” Lynch reports. “The taxi drivers will line up outside of the school to pick up underage girls for tourists. We plan on buying a car for transportation for extracurricular activities.”
Protection is obviously a major concern; as it turns out, the land Seeds of Hope will be leasing is owned by a former LAPD officer who now runs a security company in Quepos, and he has offered his services to safeguard the girls. It will cost $50,000 to construct the home, and that money is being raised through grants and fundraisers. Lynch even spear-headed a clothing drive through Island Tan here in Daniel Island, a business that has further bolstered the project by encouraging patrons to support its start-up. In an effort to keep the girls off the streets in the interim, the Seeds of Hope team has taught them how to make and sell Tica Toes, an anklet/flip flop-like accessory made from fabric and buttons or beads. In the first weekend of their small-group production, the girls made 140 Tica Toes, sold them in the local market, and earned enough money to buy the rice, beans, and diapers needed to sustain them another week. Most remarkable, however, was the fact that the U.S. Embassy heard about the venture and donated $10,000 to Seeds of Hope.
Ideally, the organization would identify two or three primary corporate or private sponsors on which they could depend into the foreseeable future. There will be ongoing day-to-day living expenses, and while the Tica Toes project teaches them a small trade and will provide a decent financial bridge, the girls will need more backing until they develop employable skills and graduate the Seeds of Hope program.
Lynch knows these girls want more than to be indentured prostitutes; she’s asked them. They’ve opened up to her about their desires to become doctors, counselors, and teachers. They want to learn how to speak better English, deal with finances, and be good mothers. On one occasion, Lynch gave the girls a list of words, such as trust, friendship, and honesty, and asked each of them to point out that which was most important. The one that resonated with Lynch was the girls who chose trust. She stated, “I hear people talk about it (the word trust), but I'm not really sure what it means.”
This summer, Lynch is looking to be the agent of change for that absence of trust. In the next four weeks, she will sell her car, pack only her necessities, and leave the security of her job and her home in Mount Pleasant to live full-time in the Seeds of Hope home. “If you would have told me, back when my friends and I were trying to decide between Costa Rica and the Bahamas for a vacation, that I would end up setting up a home for victims of sex trafficking, I would have thought you were crazy.” Lynch confesses. “My goal was to graduate from the Citadel, climb the corporate ladder, and make a ton of money. But my experience – studying abroad, counseling at the Lowcountry Pregnancy Center, specializing in leadership through my MBA – really all led me to this.” It may not have been the track Lynch intended, but it is the one for which she was destined.
To help Lynch with her journey to, and living expenses in, Costa Rica, a tax deductible donation can be made to Hands Up High Ministries (with “Holly Lynch” in the subject line) and mailed to: Hands up High Ministries, PO Box 301510, Escondido, CA 92030. Or visit www.seedsofhopehome.org, click the Donate tab, and email Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org so that she can ensure funds are directed to her support. Learn more about the Seeds of Hope project, and follow its progress, at their website above.