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Rapha House work outlined for local Kiwanis Club

Friday, July 22, 2011

Rapha House co-founder and national director Stephanie Freed showed "freedom bags," made by girls rescued from human trafficking who live in safe houses run by the organization in southeast Asia. The purses are available at competitive prices at the Rapha House gallery in Joplin. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
The work of Rapha House, a Joplin-based international program combatting human trafficking, was outlined at this week's meeting of the Monett Kiwanis Club.

Stephanie Freed, co-founder and national chairman of Rapha House, explained how the organization came into existence in 2003. Freed's father, Joe Garman, who has an international prison ministry, encountered a young woman being sold while attending a leadership training conference in Cambodia in 2002.

Garman asked his daughter to research human trafficking. Her subsequent work and trips led her to co-found Rapha House, named for the Hebrew word for "healing."

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), more than one million children are sold into slavery each year.

"A lot of trafficking in the U.S. is not related to illegal aliens," Freed said. "Many of the victims are underage girls, runaways and those coming out of the failed foster care system. It takes three days for a pimp to identify and recruit one of these girls. We have work to do."

Rapha House has focused its energies on southeast Asia. The organization has established two safe houses in Cambodia, one in Thailand and one in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Victims of trafficking are rescued by police, sometimes after pressure to act on tips provided to Rapha House.

Each safe house provides a home for 150 girls. Rapha House is therapy oriented and tries to steer the victims to a new future with skills and education. Many come from very poor villages, having been sold by their parents on the premise of getting jobs. Freed said many girls cannot read or write their own names.

Freed told several stories of girls at safe houses. One had been drugged, forcibly paralyzed and lived on a street in a stupor as part of a begging ring. Another, blind since she was young, had been regularly sexually assaulted by the men in her village once her mother left to seek food.

Freed showed a video of several safe houses. Some of the girls have graduated and returned to their homes with skills they can teach to others. She showed purses and silk scarves made by Rapha House residents that are sold at the organization's gallery in Joplin. Many of the purses, called "freedom bags," are signed as works of art though the prices are comparable as others in the U.S. market.

"These items truly represent freedom for these girls," Freed said.

Rapha House has a 10 percent recidivism rate. Others doing similar work can have up to 80 percent fall back into trafficking. Freed credits the counselors, social workers and house mothers, for whom there is one for every 10 residents, for giving the attention and hope needed to start a new life.

The cost to run one safe house is $350,000. The annual need of one girl in a safe house is $3,125. Girls in safe houses range from age 4 to 18. The younger ones stay longer and can attend school, Freed said.

More attention has been shown to the trafficking issue by major media, Freed said. Success in southeast Asia has been bolstered by government willingness to crack down on perpetrators. Efforts in Myanmar remain tenuous because of the corrupt and brutal government.

Freed extended an invitation to visit the Rapha House gallery in Joplin. The office is moving to 710 S. Main. The organization also has a regional office on the West Coast.

Kiwanis President Frank Washburn presented Freed with a check for $500 from the club to help in the Rapha House's work.

Freed spoke at an evening meeting of the club, held at Grant's restaurant, where spouses and local residents were encouraged to attend. She was introduced by Dr. David Honeycutt, who arranged to have Freed speak to Monett High School students at the contemporary issues day.

The Kiwanis Club meets on Tuesdays, usually at noon for a meal and a program.

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