By Heather Lusk
Former Zionsville resident Erin Cox could find her job in Thailand depressing. She could find it heartbreaking. Teaching children to move forward with their lives after being coerced into sex trafficking has definitely changed her, but not in a way she expected.
“We’re so much more hopeful and positive, because we’ve seen how resilient they are,” Erin Cox said.
Erin and her husband, Joel, have lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for almost one year managing a learning center for Destiny Rescue, an Australian non-profit dedicated to rescuing those enslaved or abused and restoring their lives.
“Their stories have totally changed me,” Erin said.
In January their first group of 10 teenagers graduated from their learning center.
“I’m really proud of them,” she said. “To see where they’ve come from, they could have given up and given in.”
The call to help began during college for Erin after she read the book “Sold” for a young adult literature class while obtaining a degree in education. The book, about a girl sold into sexual slavery, haunted her after the class was over. She explored ways to stop this situation and help girls in these circumstances.
More than one year ago, Erin applied for a job in Cambodia through Destiny Rescue, hoping to make a difference in the lives of young women. The nonprofit operates in five countries around the world and convinced the newlyweds to take a job that they were told would be perfect for them in Thailand.
“I looked through almost every organization out there,” she said.
What drew her to Destiny Rescue is that the organization works with the girls every step of the way to the best endpoint for each unique scenario.
“Our success rate really speaks for itself,” she said.
While the percentage varies from country to country and can sometimes be difficult to calculate, the Destiny Rescue website estimates more than 90 percent of rescued children find restoration through the organization and do not return to trafficking.
“We want to be a part of the solution,” Joel said. “We always try to focus on the positive.”
“Because respecting their family is so important, it sometimes gets them in their situations,” Erin said. “These young girls often are responsible for helping to earn income for the family, and while searching for work can be coerced into sex trafficking. Fear traps them even if they are not physically enslaved.”
Employees from Destiny Rescue and similar organizations identify underage children in red district areas and either offer the safest route possible to escape or work with the government officials to facilitate a raid. Once removed from a situation, the rescued girls consult with case workers who determines the best path for them to take, whether it’s returning to school, returning to family or learning skills to enter the workforce.
But before they take that path, they are sent to a learning center, which is where the Coxes come in.
“Our focus is not primarily academic,” Erin said. “It’s basically to get them back into regular life.”
Their Chiang Mai location is one of four in Thailand and currently houses approximately 10 girls. They learn how kids play and how to say no. The children take a weeklong self defense class and many learn skills that will help them work or own their own businesses. They also learn English.
“It gives them a lot of respect that they’ve learned English from a foreigner,” Erin said. But that’s become a minor role in their jobs. “I’ve realized making relationships with them, giving them a solid person they can hold onto is more important.”
The Coxes briefly worked with teens in North Carolina and were surprised that the same issues, such as picking up after themselves, are universal.
“No matter where we are, teenagers are teenagers,” she said.
Erin estimates the average age of girls she works with is 14, but she’s encountered a child as young as 9.
“When we first got there after training, I was getting choked up just taking a tour,” she said, “But all of the girls had smiles or were playing. You’d never have known. It was amazing.
“I really believe that everyone can do something about it,” she said. “You can’t pretend it’s not there. The statistics are scary, but it’s not an insurmountable problem.”
About Destiny Rescue:
- Estimated 27 million slaves in the world today since 2011
- More than 1,400 children rescued with more prevented from entering offices in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, India and The Philippines (and soon Dominican Republic)
- Donor nation offices in U.S., New Zealand and Australia
- In 2014, 86 percent of each dollar donated went to programs benefitting rescued children
- Estimated 98 percent of victims are women and girls