At its September program meeting, the Zonta Club of Sanibel-Captiva heard from two women who are at the forefront of the fight against gender violence and human slavery - Yaro Garcia, clinical director for the Abuse, Counseling & Treatment Center (ACT) in Fort Myers, and Nola Theiss, founder of Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships (HTAP).
Zonta has a special interest in these two organizations, having provided financial grants to both in recent years.
Together, in their separate but complementary organizations, these women have made their mark on the Southwest Florida communities and beyond. Their efforts help to provide counseling and safe havens for victims; bring local groups together into coalitions; train law enforcement officers; and blaze new trails in the ongoing battle against domestic and sexual violence.
Nola Theiss (left) and Yaro Garcia load 50 immediate care packs for ACT clients, provided through a grant from the Junior League of Fort Myers.
Garcia, who also serves as president of the Southwest Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, spoke of the challenges in identifying victims of human trafficking and bringing perpetrators to justice. Fear of authority, language barriers, and other obstacles are common.
One young girl, sold into slavery at age 12 by her father for $5,000, and a captive for seven years, had been brought by her captors to a hospital when she was pregnant. Silently, she prayed in vain that the nurses would notice something and maybe keep her there. From this and other cases, using grants from Zonta and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, Garcia and Theiss created an effective program, "Point of Contact: Point of Rescue."
With posters reminding care providers and employees of signs of human trafficking, it links medical professionals with law enforcement and the ACT crisis hotline, and a reporting protocol to follow. HTAP also trains Florida Gulf Coast University students to approach fast food restaurants, making them aware of a program that educates staff, including posters and cards, on how to spot signs of human trafficking among customers.
Awareness and knowledge are on the upswing, Garcia said, but even when victims are found and rescued, bringing perpetrators to justice remains elusive, mostly due to lack of hard evidence.
"Worldwide, we estimate there are 20 million victims of sexual and domestic slavery," she said. "Only about 6,000 cases have been prosecuted."
Theiss, a Zonta member who founded the Lee County Sheriff's Human Trafficking Task Force in 2005 and later moved on to create HTAP, has focused on education and training of professionals and community leaders and prevention programs for youth. Her effective strategy of "training the trainers" has enabled her programs to spread regionally to Hendry, Glades, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. She is also in demand as a national speaker.
One innovative HTAP program is ARTREACH which educates youth about human trafficking and empowers them to teach others through their art. The program includes eye-catching, two-sided "TIPS" cards aimed at youth ages 10-17, spelling out Trafficker Recruitment Techniques and Trafficker Avoidance Techniques.
Theiss says, "We need to train kids to know what the tricks are that are used to entrap them."
Garcia adds: "One of our challenges is that young women tend to identify with their pimps, believe themselves to be 'in love' with them, and are reluctant to turn them in or give evidence."
A recent national sting by the FBI included Cape Coral as one of the target cities for human trafficking activity where three arrests were made.
The Zonta Club of Sanibel-Captiva is a service organization of professionals and executives working together to improve the status of women, on the islands, in Lee County, and globally through Zonta International. For information, visit www.zontasancap.com.