Attending a Passion conference in Atlanta, Georgia, changed the course of Heather Caleb’s life. “I was working as a nurse when I attended a conference where I learned about human trafficking, and I found myself unable to rest until I was doing something about it.” As a dedicated medical professional, Heather was outraged when she learned how many young people are impacted by human trafficking, a modern-day form of slavery in which one person or group sells or exploits another person through force, fraud, or coercion for sexual purposes, labor purposes, or organs. “I was really frustrated. I have five younger siblings and I realized no one was talking to them about this topic, and they didn’t know about it.” Heather, fired up and ready to take action, learned more about Richmond Justice Initiative (RJI). And at RBI, we are so thankful she did, because as their Director of Development, she is the octane in the RJI gas tank.
Recently human trafficking has been getting a lot of attention in the news. RJI was founded ten years ago in 2009, however, a time when there was not much awareness about human trafficking. At the time of RJI’s founding, only one other organization existed to address human trafficking but their focus was on aftercare of those victimized.
RJI is different because from the beginning, their focus has been on prevention and early intervention through education and increasing awareness. “RJI was founded with the mission to educate, equip and mobilize communities with the tools needed to end human trafficking.” Heather explained, “We not only prevent at-risk individuals from getting wrapped up in human trafficking, but we also can encourage those who are in these situations to seek help and empower everyone to take an active role in being part of the solution.”
“We have our Prevention Project ™ curriculum, which is age appropriate for middle and high school students so they can learn how to recognize signs of human trafficking in their lives or the lives of their peers,” Heather said. Students learn how to avoid hazardous situations and how to ask for help. By empowering students to become leaders, they can take an active role, too.
Students’ lives are changed for the better through the Prevention Project program. Heather stated, “In one classroom after the teacher had given an overview to the students about what they were about to learn through the Prevention Project curriculum, one boy stepped forward and privately told the teacher, ‘This is a conflict of interest, I don’t know if I can go through the program. Trafficking is my family’s business; my uncles are pimps.’ The teacher encouraged him to still complete the program, encouraging him to receive all the information and then draw his own conclusions.” After learning about the damage and pain that victims experience, and talking with members of his family who are “in the life”, this student decided he wanted no part in trafficking others. “Fast forward to his senior year, and this young man’s mother came to the teacher and said, ‘You’ve saved my son’s life! He is now applying for college, something he had never previously planned to do.’ Through the curriculum, we are not only preventing victimization, but are also preventing would be traffickers and would be buyers!”
After RJI’s prevention program was piloted in 2012 in Henrico County high schools, its participation grew by 1,000 students a year for the first few years. In 2018, the growth increased to 16,000 students, and this year, over 24,000 students participated. “It’s pretty amazing because we don’t have a marketing budget. But we are in eight different states with only three full time staff! We do it with the help of amazing volunteers, partners, educators and school administrators who are committed to the safety of their students.” RJI also provides in-depth training for teachers, counselors and other youth leaders.
Speaking events is another way that Heather and her team offer community mobilization and inform the general public about what human trafficking is, how they can prevent it, and how to decrease demand. If you want to invite one of the RJI team to speak at your church, civic organization or business, you can request a speaker at: richmondjusticeinitiative.com/speakers/
There’s a quote by Gary Haugen, the CEO and founder of International Justice Mission that Heather shared, “We can help the work of justice by preparing for a marathon, not a sprint.” She said that spirit keeps her going. “While human trafficking is getting a lot of attention right now, once others aren’t talking about it as much, what keeps me going is knowing that there are still people who don’t know how to recognize the lies of a trafficker, who need to be given information so that they can make the decisions that can lead to freedom. They deserve my consistent efforts to help.”