West Chester's Carol Metzker Fights to End Human Trafficking

As the Rotary Club of West Chester Downtown’s charter president, Metzker is fighting a worldwide conflict on all fronts.

Carol Metzker heads up Circle of Friends’ efforts to  raise awareness of human trafficking.For Carol Metzker, there are many things that explain her passion for alleviating human trafficking and sex slavery, especially among children—something she calls the world’s dirtiest secret. There’s her dream about meeting Mahatma Gandhi a month before a pivotal trip to India. Somewhere in a poor neighborhood, the two were playing basketball in a driveway. Neither could shoot well, so they sat on wooden crates under an abandoned concrete carport and talked instead. Gandhi, that nation’s long-deceased iconic leader, leaned toward Metzker, looked her in the eye and said, “Thank you for taking care of my people.”

Then there are some actual memories. In 1991, Metzker and her 2-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, were in a play area behind their 18th-century Quaker meetinghouse in Newtown Square when a friend, Ceal, told of her adopted son’s life in an orphanage in India: During a bedtime story, 5-year-old Jake told Ceal that other kids had described she and her husband, Pete, as slaveholders—that they’d come to get him so he’d become a slave in America.

When Kevin Bales, one of the world’s authorities on modern-day slavery, offered a seminar at the Westtown School, Metzker was front-and-center. A fellow Quaker, she connected with Bales and the other co-founders of Free the Slaves, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit aimed at ending slavery—in essence, finishing the job abolitionists began centuries ago.

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There are 27 million slaves worldwide, according to Bales. UNICEF reports that as many as two million children are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation in the global commercial sex trade. “Sex slavery is quiet. No one tells you that they have six sex slaves,” says Metzker, who lives in West Chester. “It’s all the bad things wrapped into one. It’s dark, slimy stuff, and it’s going to take everybody [to solve].”

Metzker has helped spark a local intervention movement. As the Rotary Club of West Chester Downtown’s charter president, she’s channeled her humanitarian efforts into the Chester County-based anti-trafficking coalition, Circle of Friends. Its remarkable female volunteers hail from a variety of rotary clubs, churches and professions.

And, since 2009, Dawn’s Place has operated as a nonprofit, 10-bed residence for survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. At this former convent in an undisclosed location, female victims stay as long as needed, receive counseling and rebuild strength, dignity and self-reliance. Half the beds are for victims of human trafficking, and the other half for women exiting the Philadelphia prison system. Of the 27 women Dawn’s Place has served, 12 have been international human trafficking victims.

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“I found the women there to be very warm and welcoming, though initially somewhat shy,” says Chester Springs’ Carol Hanson, a member of Circle of Friends and a Dawn’s Place volunteer. “I believe they were testing us to see if we were real, if we really cared, if we would maintain a level of commitment to support them, enjoy their company and have fun spending time with them. Now, when we visit, we’re greeted with hugs and laughter.”

Nationally, the Polaris Project also fights slavery, as does the Salvation Army and the Quaker community in general. In December 2011, Google announced that it would be donating $11.5 million in grants to a list of organizations that includes the International Justice Mission, which rescues girls from sex slavery in India. And every year since 2007, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is recognized on Jan. 11.

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This region has seen its share of human trafficking. In October 2011, four brothers were convicted of smuggling young Ukrainian workers into Philadelphia and forcing them to work without pay as nighttime cleaners in discount department stores. A few years’ earlier, some two-dozen Russian women were dropped by bus in Wilmington, Del., to initiate a prostitution ring. In another instance, authorities discovered eight Mexican women being held and forced to work in the sex trade at a Southeastern Pennsylvania apartment building.

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Maina had been rescued from the circus. Carol Metzker met the 11-year-old girl while on a 2004 rotary-club trip to India, where she helped immunize kids against polio. Maina had been enslaved in the sex trade. Her 6-year-old cousins, Huro and Shivji, wove carpets for 18 hours a day. It was enough to make Metzker reconsider the Oriental rug in her living room.

Today, each March, the Rotary Club of West Chester Downtown collects and resells prom dresses for the “Dress for a Good Cause” fundraiser. The money raised has supported two community-life centers in India for children rescued from slavery—one for girls, the other for boys. Gifts have prompted unlikely innovations, including a small herd of cattle and an underground manure “digester” to separate methane gas from dung, which creates fuel for cooking and compost for fertilizing crops.

Metzker last made it to India in November 2011, when she visited a rehabilitation center for sex-slave girls in Bihar. A year earlier, she went to the boys’ shelter in Allahabad. On each trip, she’s represented thousands of fundraising volunteers, verifying that the funds were properly allocated and to determine what else is needed. “I’ve been privileged to be able to go over and be on the ground,” she says.

Back home, Metzker is seeking a publisher for her book, The World’s Dirtiest Secret: From Revelation to Action, a Journey to Help Survivors of Child Slavery, and speaking on the subject anywhere she can. She made six appearances in 2011, already surpassing that number in February this year.

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Metzker is not alone. Ron Chance has worked tirelessly to set up a Philadelphia anti-human-trafficking coalition, plus another in Wilmington, Del., and a startup in New York. A former New Jersey state trooper and veteran director of intelligence analysis for the U.S. Department of Labor, Chance had been teaching the topic at Neumann University until his retirement this spring. He first taught at St. Joseph’s University, after he moved on from intelligence work in 2001.

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Over time, Chance met with the Arch-diocese of Philadelphia and local universities, leading to a task force bent on convincing the legal system and immigration-customs officials to rescue—rather than arrest—women suspected of international prostitution, while encouraging them to testify against their traffickers in exchange for safe harbors, a conditional visa and legal assistance. The task force has also forged relationships with non-governmental human-rights and social-service organizations.

Chance commends Metzker for providing advocacy and education. “When people like her raise awareness, they also raise funds. They donate time and materials,” he says. “For the work to continue, it needs this kind of help.”

Back in 2005, the Catholic Coalition for Justice and Peace co-sponsored a workshop on human trafficking to raise awareness among agencies. “The major concern was that there was no place to go,” says coalition member Sister Eileen White, also part of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.

The end result: Dawn’s Place, where White serves as the resident coordinator. About 30-40 women volunteers average 100 service hours a month. “The hope is that we find friends who have friends with more money than we have now,” says White. “With increased awareness of the problem, people will come forth.”

To that end, Metzker and Circle of Friends offer ways for victims to connect, whether it’s through quilting projects, field trips or other events. “They’re providing an opportunity to have an enjoyable activity without necessarily being so interested in asking about each woman’s situation,” White says. “They’re just saying, ‘We’re here for you.’”

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Before leaving the girls’ shelter in Bihar, Metzker wrote her deepest wish for the ashram on a scrap of pale-blue satin: Serenity to the souls who walk its grounds and the soles that touch its earth. She then tied the little flag to a clothesline at the shelter.

Other guests added their hopes, as well. Soon all the girls and several staff members were selecting their favorite bits of color and writing. They shared their dreams, in Hindi and English, on their own mini-banners: “To be a doctor,” “To be with my mom and dad soon.” One said simply, “I love you, God.”

The wishes hung like Nepalese prayer flags—pink, lavender, red, lime green, yellow, silver and blue—above a garden of marigolds in the dazzling sunshine.

“Why were Gandhi and I trying to play basketball? There never was an answer,” Metzker writes in her book’s manuscript. “But my surprise was great when a coordinator at the shelter mentioned that, after all other needs were fulfilled, it would be fun for the girls to have a basketball hoop on campus.”

To learn more, visit circle-of-friends.org, ahomefordawn.org and freetheslaves.net.

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