August 8, 2016
When Jill Bolander Cohen’s stepdaughter called her one afternoon, she didn’t expect her stepdaughter to be asking for her to help a high school victim of human trafficking. “This young woman’s mother sold her to a trafficker for $25,000,” Cohen says. “Her mother needed the money to open and operate her business, and the young woman’s trafficker was shipping her around the country as she worked to pay back her mother’s debts.”
Cohen, who serves on the Central Florida Presbytery Immigration Task Force, is the founder of the Lifeboat Project, a Florida-based nonprofit that fights human trafficking as part of the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative.
As a result, her stepdaughter knew how to be on the lookout for potential victims. “When my stepdaughter called me about a young woman she suspected was a victim of trafficking, I began making calls to those in my network—to attorneys, to other advocacy groups, et cetera—to find her the help that she needed to be safe,” Cohen says.
The Lifeboat Project began to take shape after Cohen attended Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, DC, in 2011. During that event, she heard a presentation that addressed sexual exploitation and human trafficking, and she immediately knew she needed to take action in her home state of Florida.
“I was working as the justice and peace person for Central Florida Presbytery when I first attended EAD,” Cohen says. “About six months or so after my first experience there, I was back in Florida and began to hear more and more about human trafficking, so I began digging a bit deeper into the issue.” She then contacted the PC(USA)’s Human Trafficking Roundtable.
“That’s when I learned just how close to home this issue hit. [They] shared that I-4 (Interstate 4) is one of the most heavily trafficked parts of Florida—and my church sits about two minutes from there,” Cohen says. “Things just sort of snowballed from there.”
After her conversation with staff on the roundtable, Cohen decided to create an organization to fight trafficking. She brought together lawyers; members of the Freedom Network, a national alliance that works with survivors of trafficking; members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; and community leaders to plan how to target trafficking in Florida. “They were hungry to learn more and figure out ways to take action,” Cohen says.
Today, the Lifeboat Project aims to raise awareness of trafficking through training, to restore hope and dignity to exploited individuals, and to promote self-sufficiency by providing a safe residence. The Lifeboat Project also provides assistance for personal development and counseling and coordinates with other agencies to help victims of trafficking heal and transition back into society.
The organization also emphasizes educating children. “Children with disabilities, those who have run away from home, or those who face the realities of poverty or other disadvantages are often at the highest risk to become victims,” Cohen says. “We realized that someone needed to develop a tool or set of tools to help teach these children how to keep themselves safe and what to be on the lookout for.”
In partnership with Orlando -based Engineering and Computer Simulations and with help from philanthropists, the Lifeboat Project has developed an educational app for junior high and high school students to help fight trafficking. The ACT (Awareness Combats Trafficking) app was developed to help teach students how to recognize situations where trafficking may be occurring and to help them understand what to do if they suspect trafficking. “We’re so excited about the rollout of this app,” Cohen says. “Even in its early stages, it’s gaining the attention of legislators and educators across Florida and around the country.”
Kristena Morse, former communications strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Central Florida Presbytery
Let us join in prayer for:
Rev. Dr. Daniel Williams, Executive Presbyter and Stated Clerk
Karen Daniel, Office and Finance Manager
Jody Mask, Administrative Assistant
Cheryl Carson, Leadership/Resource/Youth Coordinator
Barbara Sayles, Hunger Action Enabler
Rev. Darice K. W. Dawson, College Ministries Coordinator
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
God, you are constantly welcoming and providing for us. Help us to remember to do the same for the people we encounter. Give us opportunities to see people around us who often seem to be invisible. Amen.