By Leif Coorlim
A van and a set of benches. In the global fight to end human trafficking, they are probably not the first weapons that come to mind.
But on the ground in places like Cambodia and India, anti-trafficking advocates say these are tools are at the top of their wish lists.
“We have over 350 children in our school from different areas of the community. Some children have dropped out because they lack transportation," says Julie Harrold, director of U.S. operations at Agape International Missions (AIM). "Parents don’t want their children walking to school because the roads are dangerous and kids are propositioned on the way to school."
Now there's a way to help from anywhere in the world.
The Cambodia-based AIM, dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating victims of child trafficking in the southeast Asian nation, was featured in the award-winning CNN Freedom Project documentary 'Every Day in Cambodia.’
The girls from the villages who’ve been walking to school have had incidents, and the families have gotten scared of the girls making the walk. So they try to cover the distance with rickshaws.
“The school is focused on empowering female leaders,” says Joseph Schmidt, founder of EndCrowd. “They need a van. Folks have been exciting about buying a van, to help these girls get to school in Cambodia. The fact that the over-arching issue is fighting modern-day slavery is a bonus to the people who have gotten involved.”
Schmidt is a successful entrepreneur who founded and sold several companies, including canvasondemand.com, which took photos and printed them on canvas to look like oil paintings.
In 2011, after he had sold Canvas On Demand, he and his wife were looking for a way to make a bigger difference, beyond just business. He'd heard about human trafficking and found it appalling.
But the question was, how could he help stop it?
“Human trafficking is a difficult subject to go volunteer in. You can’t sign up, to say, go on a raid, very easily,” says Schmidt. “And the fact that this kind of stuff was happening, just really grabbed my wife and I.”
Schmidt sold his company and rather than build a new organization, he decided to invent a project and dive in and do some work.
He came up with the idea for ENDcrowd, a crowd-funding website where individuals can give to projects that are specifically focused on ending human-trafficking.
ENDcrowd is similar to other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, but with a specific focus of only funding projects that help fight modern-day slavery.
“We wanted to take the big picture of what slavery looks like in the world today and break it down into palatable, specific understandable chunks, that a person could get excited and engaged with and thus become activated in the abolition movement,” says Schmidt.
In eastern India, his brainchild is helping girls who've escaped their traffickers find a safe place to live and empowering them with tools to make a living.
Sarah Symons is the founder and executive director of Made By Survivors, which is getting set to open a brand-new shelter in Jalpaiguri, that can accommodate 125 victims of human trafficking.
A major component of the shelter, will be providing the survivors with a skill.
"We're looking to offer employment training and entrepreneurial skills to the older girls," says Symons, "with the hopes that they will go on to earn high status and high wage jobs to pull them out of the depths of poverty."
Their request? $3,000, to pay for benches and jewelry-making equipment. The goal was funded by 28 backers via ENDcrowd.
"I was amazed that it came together so quickly. The needs of our survivors can sometimes feel overwhelming, but when everyone pulls together, we can meet those needs and provide life-changing opportunities to more women and children," says Symons.
“We want them to follow from the donation to the implementation, so they actually get to witness the joy and the victory in this," says Schmidt. "And that we can have an influence and a win in this fight that seems unwinnable. The wins just look different than what we all imagined they would be.”
In Cambodia, AIM's dream of providing young students a safe passage to school was met by 56 backers, who combined to give $10,000 to buy a van.
"We plan to give the backers updates on the process, including when we’ve narrowed down the van they want, when it’s purchased and when it finally arrives and the first day it actually takes the children to school."
They also plan to have fun with it. The biggest funders get to put their names on the van and one actually gets to name it.
Other current projects include efforts to fund programs at six after-care homes featured in the documentary film, In Plain Sight.
For Schmidt, it comes down to an unshakable belief in equality, no matter where a person lives. “Our daughters are very special to us, but they are no more important that any 4, 6 and 9-year-olds anywhere on Earth.”
Neither India nor Cambodia fully complies with U.S. minimum standards on eliminating trafficking, meaning that they are listed on Tier 2 (India) or Tier 2 Watch List (Cambodia) of the State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report. But both nations have made attempts in recent years to improve their anti-trafficking record.