Coffee shop volunteers aid anti-sex-trafficking efforts
MILFORD – As young and naive as she was, Lauren Lisembee knew there was something fishy going on when she and a friend responded many years ago to a Craigslist ad for modeling jobs.
The office had one laptop computer and one camera, and only two people: a man in his 60s and a young woman with a Russian accent who seemed frightened.
Eight years later, Lisembee, who is 27 and lives in Manchester, said she and her friend were in an office of a sex trafficking ring. She was struck by how easy it could have been to get caught up in a vile business.
Lisembee, a dance movement therapist who recently graduated from Antioch College, started Written On Your Heart in Houston when she lived there.
She lives in New Hampshire now, and last week, on Human Trafficking Awareness Day, she was in Union Coffee Co. asking customers to make greeting cards for victims and survivors of sex trafficking.
Volunteers create about 500 to 1,000 of the cards each month. The cards are sent to 17 undisclosed safe houses in eight states. Each house typically shelters from five to 10 women and boys.
Lisembee and Kelly Kingsbury, of Stoddard, are the founders of the local branch of Written On Your Heart, part of the New Hampshire Traffic Free Coalition. Written On Your Heart’s goal is to bring hope and encouragement to survivors and victims of sex trafficking, and to publicize the problem and give people a concrete way to get help.
"Often, people feel powerless," Lisembee said. "It’s such a touchy subject, and people don’t know much about it."
On a bar at Union Coffee, she spread out colorful cards and envelopes, along with stickers and a variety of writing implements. Then a smiling Lisembee approached customers and asked them to join in. Everyone seemed a little surprised, but willing.
Lisembee is an old hand at this.
Houston has an anti-human-trafficking coffee shop called Second Cup, run by volunteers and professional counselors. Lisembee said she had wanted to get involved, "but I didn’t feel equipped to work with survivors and victims."
But she did have paper and pens, so she started writing letters, and Written On Your Heart was born.
When Lisembee moved to New Hampshire, she struck up a conversation with Kingsbury, a photographer, in a Keene coffee shop, and they decided to join forces.
"I love helping people and letting them know they matter," Kingsbury said.
Along with the card-making event, there were several other Written On Your Heart activities going on last week.
On Sunday night, the New Hampshire Traffic Free Coalition held a meeting at Union Coffee, and Lisembee went to Southern New Hampshire University on Thursday to train dorm resident assistants to look for the signs of human trafficking.
Written On Your Heart also works with the Polaris Project, a national human trafficking resource center that maintains a 24/7 hot line.
The average victim is 11 to 13 years old and typically doesn’t finish high school and "winds up looking like a sex worker," Lisembee said.
"Most have been victims of sex abuse as a child, which leads to the big question: How are we taking care of our women and children?"
Derek Fimbel, co-owner of the Union Coffee Co., said the shop has done a lot of work with the local Boys & Girls Club and Share Outreach, but that this was the first nonprofit event it hosted.
Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.