Kent Couch didn’t believe human trafficking could be happening in the quiet area of Bend, Oregon, where his convenience store is located. “Our team would have told you it doesn’t happen here; we don’t have that in our store. But it was evident pretty quickly that does happen here,” said Couch, who operates the one-store chain Stop and Go Shell, as well as The Growler Guys franchise.
After hearing about the extent of the problem from Nita Belles, executive director of Oregon-based In Our Backyard, Couch decided to place the organization’s free stickers in the c-store’s bathrooms. The stickers read: “Are You Safe? Need Freedom?” and include the National Human Trafficking Hotline number: (888) 373-7888.
“I put them in frames: I don’t like stickers. Much to my surprise, the frames were ripped off the walls and smashed. That’s the traffickers’ way of making sure girls don’t see them,” Couch said. That’s when he realized “it was happening in my backyard.”
Couch became active in In Our Backyard’s Convenience Stores Against Trafficking (CSAT) program, which provides industry-specific materials and information about how to safely recognize and report human trafficking. A number of state associations also have partnered with CSAT, and NACS announced a partnership in 2018 to help raise awareness of the human trafficking problem and share resources with the convenience store community to help address it.
NACS also partners with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Blue Campaign. NACS worked with DHS to provide convenience retailers with free NACS-branded DHS Blue Campaign training and awareness materials.
C-stores are among the few places where victims may be seen in public. The In Our Backyard stickers are a great way to reach young people who are being trafficked, Couch added, because “traffickers don’t leave them for a minute, except in the bathroom stall.”
Through his volunteer work, Couch has learned that the average age of trafficked children is 12 to 14 for girls and 11 to 13 for boys. It can be difficult to recognize someone who is being trafficked because it doesn’t just involve children from “broken” homes or poor families. “In one case, a girl was trafficked and her dad was chief of police during that time. Nita [Belles] says that in any home that has internet, it can happen.”
“I’ve had the opportunity to hear from survivors,” Couch said, and he urged other c-stores to join the effort. “It’s going to save a life.”
Matthew W. Stephenson of Casey’s General Stores has seen firsthand the dramatic impact of his company’s involvement in CSAT. “We have seen the direct recoveries of victims. It gives me goosebumps.”
Casey’s teamed up with fellow Iowa-based convenience store chain Kum & Go to implement the CSAT program. Last spring the two companies coordinated a rollout in Casey’s 2,200 stores and Kum & Go’s 400 locations. “There’s an overlap in our footprint and the more density you have, the more effective the program is. The more we can get stickers in locations, the more impact we can have on trafficking lines in the Midwest,” he said. “Remember your purpose as you go through life is bigger than selling gas. This is a cost-effective way to help take care of our communities.”
Stephenson, director of training and development, has customized the training program for Casey’s employees. The goal is to recognize signs and report to authorities. “We tell employees not to intervene, unless there is danger to life, limb or eyesight. In that case, call 911. We want to be clear. We don’t want an employee running down somebody in the parking lot. The program isn’t designed for direct recovery; it’s to collect information to work with law enforcement.”
Next, he said, Casey’s will roll out training for the approximately 550 truck drivers employed at the company’s two distribution centers.
Remember your purpose as you go through life is bigger than selling gas. This is a cost-effective way to help take care of our communities.
Truck stops are prime targets, both for traffickers and for anti-trafficking campaigners. “Due to their frequently remote locations and transient customer base, truck stops are an ideal venue for traffickers seeking to profit from exploiting victims without interference or undue attention,” according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s website.
Dan Alsaker, CEO of Broadway Flying J Truck Stops, which has seven locations on the West Coast, works with the FBI, state police and a number of anti-trafficking groups, including Truckers Against Trafficking and The Jonah Project. Truckers Against Trafficking has an online training program to help truck drivers identify and respond to the problem. The Jonah Project advocates for survivors.
Each of Broadway Flying J’s 500 employees receives training, he said. “We learn to identify the telltale signs: no eye contact, groups of people who follow each other around. The physical handling, the strength of someone’s arm or the hand around the wrist. Someone standing by the women’s restroom. Light clothing on a winter day. Or you see someone get out of a back of a trailer. We do see some of that stuff in our parking lots.”
And they learn how difficult it can be for children who have been coerced and threatened, and who may not have English as a first language, to escape from the people who have enslaved them, Alsaker said. “For example, a young woman applied for a job, and it turned out to be something else. When she tried to get out, she was beaten to within an inch of her life. They said: ‘I know where your family is.’ She was terrified.”
Listen to Convenience Matters Episode #142: "We Can Help Stop Human Trafficking" as NACS hosts Carolyn Schnare and Stephanie Sikorski talk with Julianna Williams, program director, In Our Backyard, about efforts to fight trafficking. Visit www.conveniencematters.com to listen.
Super Team Effort
As part of its efforts for the past 10 years, In Our Backyard has marked Human Trafficking Awareness month in January. The goal is to focus on sex trafficking surrounding the Super Bowl through partnerships with law enforcement officials, nonprofits and government agencies in the host city. Belles, the organization’s executive director, said it is an opportunity to educate the public and also to emphasize that the problem occurs year round.
Ahead of the February 2, 2019, Super Bowl in Miami, Belles announced that the organization’s “One Team Against Trafficking” event would involve the National Football League, Miami Dolphins, Salvation Army, The Miami Women’s Fund, St. Thomas School of Law, Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office and other nonprofits, as well as a survivor of human trafficking who would share her story. Volunteers were scheduled to reach out to convenience stores in the area.
The Georgia Association of Convenience Stores (GACS) partnered with In Our Backyard before Super Bowl LLII in Atlanta. In 2018, Georgia was seventh in the nation for the most cases of human trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
GACS began preparing months before the Super Bowl, according to Angela Holland, president of the association. “In Our Backyard provided free online training and taught us how to talk to owners,” she said. “Some operators said: ‘We don’t want people to think our store is dangerous.’ But half of people in the U.S. come into a convenience store every day. They need to know what it looks like…what to look for.”
GACS signed up 17 companies and nearly 300 stores. The weekend before the Super Bowl about 400 volunteers distributed books with photographs of missing children to convenience store and truck stop employees and placed stickers with emergency contact information in restrooms. By late May, 29 of the 34 children listed in the book had been recovered, and multiple trafficking victims received assistance, according to GACS.
“My role now is to continue to promote this, to make sure people don’t forget. This is not just one time at the Super Bowl,” Holland said. “There needs to be a constant reminder that ‘hey, this matters. It changes lives.’”