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Sanibel Islander Leads Crusade against Human Trafficking

By Staff | Jan 12, 2012

Nola Theiss of Sanibel Island is Executive Director of the not-for-profit initiative known as Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships. (Photo by BILL SCHILLER)

In the coming weeks, Southwest Florida will see a convening of community forums and public presentations designed to raise awareness and support of efforts to eradicate human trafficking. Now, some may believe that issues involving slave labor are something of the past, say, something relegated to the days of pirate plundering or that era of emancipation indicative of the Civil War, but that isn’t the case at all. Human trafficking is a very real actuality of modern reality that not only involves forced human servitude, but also murder, rape, sexual exploitation of children, racketeering and a cesspool of criminality that continues to muddy communities throughout the world, and Southwest Florida is not immune. In recent years, there has been an emergence of national and international campaigns to counter such crimes and to that end, credit must be given to a woman from Sanibel Island who may have never planned it, but has become a critical force in the fight against human trafficking.

Nola Theiss of Sanibel serves as Executive Director of a nonprofit initiative known as Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships (HTAP). Originally from Illinois, Theiss’ early career was in education, but later involved desktop publishing processes that included frequently translating knitting instructions from Spanish to English. While this seems far removed from her focus today, it is fitting to note that much of Theiss’ early life involved working with children as well as women from foreign countries. She admits that her appreciation for those experiences may have helped shape her reaction to the very first presentation she heard involving human trafficking. This came about in the mid 90’s, some time after she moved to Sanibel and joined the local chapter of Zonta, an international organization dedicated to the empowerment of women with a long history of advocacy in issues relevant to advancing and uplifting of women, professionally and personally. In Sanibel, Zonta has not only served to support women, but a wide-range of community causes and not-for-profit initiatives.

Zonta Members in Sanibel additionally support aims critical to international interests, and the resolve to do that was furthered in 2004. At the time, Theiss says local members had attended a national conference and listened to a presentation involving crimes against women in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She and other members returned to Sanibel with a new awareness of the extent to which human trafficking occurs throughout the world, and America. Ironically, Theiss says, they were further surprised that little, or no, focus was placed on this in Southwest Florida. And that seemed strange because this is a very culturally diverse region with a well established reputation of serving as something of an international gateway and labor pool comprised by an abundance of foreign workers.

Theiss not only went on to establish the HTAP, but also helped drive the creation of a task force overseen by the Lee County Sheriff’s Department. She also created the first of community panels that shined a spotlight into a dark world of human abuse. Several horrific cases would be revealed in the time that followed; one, involving an 11 year-old girl from Cape Coral who had been forced into living with a group of men that worked at a plant nursery. During the day, as Theiss explans, the girl performed chores of cooking, cleaning and laundry. During the night, she was passed around from one to the next for sexual purposes. Theiss can also share a story involving much the same with a 13 year-old girl in Bonita Springs. In this case, a man who came from the girl’s same village in Guatemala had heard that the girl had been enslaved by another group of men. He ultimately helped liberate her from this gang, but not so she could be free. He wanted her for himself. After having his way with her, repeatedly, he went on to pimp her out for prostitution, but became enraged when the child became pregnant, even more so, because it wasn’t clear as to who was the father of the baby this child was now carrying in her small womb. He beat her, and ultimately, through bruised and bleeding, the girl was able to get help from a neighbor and police arrested the man. Unfortunately, he was charged with human trafficking crimes, and in the lack of proof that he was ultimately responsible for enslaving the girl in the first instance, Theiss says the man walked away free.

Theiss says these cases can be very frustrating, “but if I start to go crazy thinking about every single thing that has happened in individual cases, I’d just give up.”

Therefore, Theiss stays focused on the goals, which is all about increasing awareness, creating programs and opportunities for training involving professionals in health and/or social services to better identify victims of crimes involving human trafficking; and how best to respond to their particular needs for recovery.

Theiss has worked with organizations throughout America as well as others in countries that include Poland and Canada. While much of those efforts are directed to initiatives affiliated with Zonta, other cases involved community collaborations of professionals seeking to right wrongs in their respective locations.

Theiss says she strives to drive home a message that their is a job description many can fill in the fight against these crimes; that efforts, are not limited to the work of police and social services. For example, she has found hope from the use of art as a tool for social justice. She refers to a play written and performed by students of Cypress Lakes Center for the Arts in Fort Myers. As the script was written to highlight issues involving human trafficking, that play has since been recorded and is being utilized in different presentations. Also, two years ago, Theiss helped establish a children’s program called Art Reach, which involves lessons on human trafficking and the painting or drawing of pictures germane to the subject. Ironically, in the very first class conducted at Big Arts, one of the participating children came to the very personal, but painful conclusion, that she herself was a victim.

Theiss reflects on these encounters and says, “We’re winning a lot of battles, but the war remains.”

The waging of that war is anticipated to attract new recruits due to a newly established human rights student organization created at Edison College in Fort Myers. In preparing for the launch of forums and presentations this January, Theiss says she had garnered support from Lauren Mueller, an Edison student who is also involved with the Junior League. Apparently, as the two began considering sites to launch presentations this year, Edison College was approached, but informed, to conduct such conferences on campus required sponsorship from a student-based organization. Mueller, in turn, created an organization that will now focus on anti-human trafficking programs and other human rights initiatives.