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Published: Saturday, 7/25/2009

Teacher seeks to help girls recover from trafficking

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Jeff Wilbarger said that after reading about the horrors of human trafficking and slavery,  I couldn t sit here and not do something about it. Jeff Wilbarger said that after reading about the horrors of human trafficking and slavery, I couldn t sit here and not do something about it.
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When Jeff Wilbarger felt a calling to fight human trafficking and help young victims recover, he thought he had to go to Thailand or another foreign nation infamous for the exploitation of children.

But after prayer and study, the math and physics teacher from Bowling Green said he realized he did not have to travel far to find the need for such a ministry.

"Toledo is one of the top cities in the United States for human trafficking," Mr. Wilbarger said. "My contact in the FBI said that if I can get this up and running, there will be no problem getting girls to enter the program."

His nonprofit ministry is called the Daughter Project, a Christian-based outreach that seeks to help adolescent girls recover from the horrors of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children.

Mr. Wilbarger, 45, said he first felt the compulsion to take action about two years ago, when he and a small group of students fasted and prayed during their lunch hours at Toledo's Emmanuel Christian School.

"That was the beginning of God laying it on my heart. I wanted to do something in addition to teaching," he said.

About the same time, he was given a copy of the book Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade - And How We Can Fight It, by David Batstone.

"I read the first two chapters and that's all I could take," Mr. Wilbarger said. "I couldn't sit here and not do something about it."

He said he had often wondered what he would have done if he had lived in Germany during the Nazis' rise to power, or if he had been older than a child during the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"Would I have taken a stand against Hitler? Would I have stood up against racism?" he asked.

When he learned about the global problem of human trafficking today, the nature of those questions changed dramatically.

"It wasn't just a philosophical argument in my head anymore. I had a chance to help stop human slavery," Mr. Wilbarger said.

The U.S. government estimates that nearly 1 million people worldwide suffer from human trafficking, with 20,000 being trafficked into the United States each year for labor or sexual exploitation, he said.

The average age that an adolescent victim of human trafficking is first sexually abused is 14, he added.

Mr. Wilbarger cited research by the FBI, media reports, and studies by Celia Williamson, a professor at the University of Toledo, as proof of the urgency and scope of the problem.

Ms. Williamson said that child sex trafficking is "an issue of great concern" in Toledo.

A federal investigation in 2005 and 2006 uncovered a trafficking ring in which nine underage girls from Toledo were rescued in Harrisburg, Pa.

"Toledo is currently fourth in the country for the number of investigations and arrests of traffickers and the rescue of trafficking victims," Ms. Williamson said.

But although Mr. Wilbarger felt compelled do something to help, at the same time he said he asked God, "Why me?"

"I'm not a CEO or a counselor, I've never done anything like this before," he said of starting a nonprofit ministry. "But if God laid this on my heart, he will bring in people who also are concerned and he will also bring in the funds."

Mr. Wilbarger said he knows of six programs in the United States that help girls recover from the traumas of human trafficking, but none of them is Christian-based. That's why he feels he must create the Daughter Project from scratch.

He has been walking carefully every step of the way to bring the idea from concept to reality.

The Daughter Project was incorporated in March with its own board of directors.

"None of the board members including myself will receive any salary," he said. "It's in the constitution. I've put thousands of hours into this and I have learned so much, but I want to keep teaching for a living. God has given me a teacher's heart."

Over the last few months, Mr. Wilbarger has met with people who have expertise in a broad range of areas, from pediatrics and psychology to construction and nutrition.

The group's mission statement defines the purpose of the Daughter Project, saying it is "to help girls recover from the trauma of human sex trafficking and to help prevent girls from being trafficked through education. The foundation of this help will be godly, biblical, and holistic."

Mr. Wilbarger is hoping to set up a safe house to provide food, shelter, and clothing by August, 2010. The girls would receive spiritual mentoring along with medical, psychological, and legal help at the safe house.

He wants to use his training as an educator to help the girls earn their high school diplomas and to learn basic skills such as gardening, cooking, and eating healthfully.

The ministry's Web site, thedaughterproject.org, went online a few months ago and Mr. Wilbarger said anyone interested in helping can read about the ministry on the site and "prayerfully consider" getting involved.

- David Yonke



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