Small but mighty

Indiana club fights atrocity of human trafficking.

By Cindy Dashnaw

Human trafficking is one of the three most lucrative crimes in the world, says the SAFE Coalition for Human Rights. It’s difficult to identify and heart-wrenching to talk about. But none of that has stopped a small Kiwanis club in northern Indiana from fighting it.

The 18-member Merrillville-Breakfast Kiwanis Club joined SAFE CHR to help victims of what the United Nations calls “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by improper means … for an improper purpose, including forced labor or sexual exploitation.”

Human trafficking is happening in the club’s own backyard –– and likely yours too, says the Rev. Charles Strietelmeier, club member and coalition spiritual advisor. 

“People are always shocked to hear it happens in their community,” he says. “In the movies, human trafficking is foreign women smuggled into a country, but that’s a minority of cases. It’s more about local women and children dominated by men who want to make money off of them.”

Northwest Indiana is a hotspot for human trafficking, says club President Ron Mesarch. 

“Merrillville is on the I-65 corridor [a major north-south U.S. highway] with a multitude of small hotels where this occurs.” 

Traffickers recruit people made vulnerable by emotional trauma, economic hardship and even natural disasters. Young adults timing out of foster care are frequent targets. Even a child’s classmate can be hired by a trafficker to recruit friends with what starts as a seemingly harmless act such as sharing inappropriate selfies.

“We’ve seen kids trafficked while their parents think they’re at the library or sports,” Strietelmeier says. “It’s insidious. Online is one of the most potent tools traffickers have. They’ll present themselves as the ideal boyfriend or girlfriend, then want to meet. They buy you nice things and all of a sudden there’s a price tag.”

A high proportion of runaways end up in the hands of traffickers. Drug-addicted parents desperate for money even traffic their own children.

SAFE CHR volunteer Lorraine Szoke sparked the relationship with her husband’s Kiwanis club. While they don’t fundraise now, Robert Szoke says, members voted to dip into savings earned from peanut, popcorn and candy sales.

“We gave US$500 for awards in a student essay contest to open the door,” Mesarch says. “We have two Key Clubs we want to involve. We’re still learning about the issue and figuring out how to help the coalition more.”

Need help? In the U.S., call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888 or text HELP to 233733.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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