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MANY

Have you witnessed sex trafficking? Your first response is probably "no." But many of us have seen it — we just didn't realize it at the time.

Maybe you remember a friend that suddenly started coming to school with much nicer clothes and a new cellphone, which she said were "gifts" from someone older. Or you may recall that guy who seemed a little bit too old to be dating a classmate, even if she was "technically 18." Maybe you encountered someone's sketchy "older friend" at a party who had the hookup for drugs or alcohol, or a classmate who wanted to “introduce you" to an unfamiliar crowd.

It might have been the woman who hung around the bus stop for no clear reason, the man who was chatting up teens at rest stops, or a friend's "modeling manager" making promises that just seemed too good to be true.


The reality is that sex trafficking doesn't just happen in faraway places. In fact, young people are sexually exploited — forced to perform sexual acts for money or other resources like food, shelter, or support — in every state in the U.S. This even includes sex trafficking of youth under the age of 18.

The reality is, though, that we aren't always quick to recognize it.

[rebelmouse-image 19397870 dam="1" original_size="5184x3456" caption="Photo by Victor Van Welden/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Victor Van Welden/Unsplash.

Learning what sex trafficking looks like is the first step to ensuring it doesn't happen to us or someone we care about. These 15 facts about youth sex trafficking and exploitation in the U.S. are a great place to start.

1. Yes, sexual exploitation could happen to anyone — including you.

While some youth, like those who are homeless or transgender, are especially vulnerable, the reality is that victims do exist across every demographic. They could be the class valedictorian, the boy who lives across the street from you, or the captain of the cheer squad.

“The victims that I come in contact with come from all different walks of life," says Mirielle Milne, Youth Catalyst for MANY and Advocate for The Jonah Project. “But I do think people get it in their mind that it is a certain type of person."

Traffickers don't discriminate and they're experienced in manipulation. They're looking for a person's vulnerabilities, and if they're able to find them, virtually anyone can be a target.

2. Traffickers may take on a generous and caring persona as part of a tactic called "grooming."

“Grooming" follows a few predictable steps. First a victim is targeted, usually because they appear to be struggling emotionally, have lower self-esteem, or need resources like a job, money, or a place to live.

The trafficker then establishes trust by befriending the victim all while learning more about them, like where they live, who their family and friends are, and what their insecurities might be.

3. And at first, the behavior of a sexual trafficker might not seem threatening at all.

Traffickers know that before they can exploit someone, they first have to earn their trust.

For example, a victim might be led to believe that a person they've connected with online just wants to be a friend. They might even help them through a difficult time. According to Milne, this kind of behavior is designed to make victims feel cared for, special, and even protected.

But this “friend" will gradually become a little more than friendly, perhaps even making grand, romantic gestures and promises.

4. Trafficking can even begin with something that seems harmless, like a job opportunity, gift, or innocent “favor."

For example, a trafficker posing as a modeling manager might set up a careful ruse by taking a victim to photoshoots and gigs that seem perfectly legitimate. Other times, traffickers might offer to help a struggling teen by buying them clothes or lending them money. Sometimes, it's even a family member that will lure youth in with a “job," insisting they need help to make ends meet.

This is all in an effort to make the victim feel as if they “owe" something to the trafficker, which they'll use later on to pressure and control their victim.

Arash Ghafoori, Executive Director at the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY), says it's that “need" that becomes the entry point into exploitation. “[Traffickers] lure youth into victimization — whether it be through love, or through drugs, or through support," he explains. “[Whatever youth] are desperately seeking."

Youth Survivor, Kristi House Project GOLD.

5. But sexual exploitation doesn't always happen overnight.

Part of why exploitation is so sinister is that it can happen gradually, making it more difficult to see at first. According to Lenore Jean-Baptiste, Project Coordinator at NPHY, some traffickers take a year or more to lure their victims and earn their trust before ever trying to sexually exploit them. Other times, an exploitative family member or peer might take advantage of the trust they've already earned to manipulate victims.

6. The trust they earn allows them to slowly escalate their abuse.

As a trafficker becomes a more central part of their victim's life, they begin to isolate them from family and friends. This can involve pitting them against their loved ones, or even controlling their phone and internet usage.

When the victim becomes completely dependent, the trafficker then demands sexual acts as repayment for the “debt" owed.

As Ghafoori explains, “As that dependency — whether it be from a relationship or a resource point of view — is developed, it turns into the sexual exploitation … these are used as tools for trade."

7. And traffickers are getting smarter about how they find and learn about their victims, too.

Social media is a tool often used by traffickers. Not only is it easy to find and contact victims through social media, it's easy to gather information about them, and keep track of their whereabouts and their support system.

“Youth are not [always] going through the person's page to see who they are," explains Jean-Baptiste.

“They introduce themselves via social media, and a lot of times, [they're] promising careers," she continues. At a time in which self-made stars are born online, the prospect of a modeling gig coming from Instagram doesn't seem so far-fetched.

8. And once they have information on their victims, traffickers can blackmail them.

Many traffickers use threats to keep victims under their control. They might threaten to harm a victim's family members or friends, or claim that they'll publish photos or videos of the abuse to shame and expose their victim.

Some traffickers coerce victims into having children as well, and will blackmail victims using their children as leverage, either by threatening to take them away or harm them.

9. Fear of law enforcement can make it difficult for victims to reach out for help, too.

Traffickers can also take advantage of an existing fear of law enforcement, making claims that victims won't be believed, or that they will be arrested for prostitution or drug use if they come forward.

People of color who might have an existing fear of police brutality struggle even more with this. “Now we're talking about historical trauma between communities [of color] and police officers," Jean-Baptiste says. “A lot of times traffickers can use those kinds of stories and experiences to make individuals feel fearful."

10. Self-blame can also make it difficult to leave even though it's never the victim's fault.

Many victims feel responsible for the abuse and exploitation they've endured, which can, in turn, make them believe they're not victims at all. Self-blame is often a big part of the trauma they experience. They feel that, by accepting money, gifts, or friendship, the abuse was their own fault.

But even if they feel that way, victims are never to blame. “It doesn't matter if you got money, it doesn't matter if you got to keep all the money," Jean-Baptiste says. “If you felt you had to engage in that activity for any survival or need … then it's exploitation."

Advocates like Milne agree, affirming that when we're talking about youth, sexual exploitation is never a job or a choice — and certainly never a victim's fault.

Traffickers use powerful abuse tactics to ensure that victims will give into their demands, and that manipulation is designed to be difficult to identify and resist. The only person responsible for abuse is the perpetrator of that abuse — no matter what a victim does or doesn't do.

11. Trauma can even be powerful enough to drive victims back to their traffickers after they've escaped their control.

If you've ever seen a victim of abuse and wondered why they didn't just leave or why they went back, it's a phenomenon known as “trauma-coerced bonding."

This is an emotional attachment that victims form with their abusers, and it's unfortunately very common. Traffickers' initial acts of kindness and generosity make a strong impression on their victims. As the exploitation worsens, the trafficker can keep up that image by switching back and forth between positive attention and abusive behavior to keep victims hooked.

[rebelmouse-image 19397872 dam="1" original_size="4650x3100" caption="Photo by Carlos Arthur/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Carlos Arthur/Unsplash.

“We're trying to tell [these youth] that this person is a trafficker… how do you say that to somebody about the person they've been having dinner with every single night for the last year?" says Jean-Baptiste. “It's hard because they've now had a relationship… [sometimes with] years involved."

12. But there is hope and support waiting for victims.

Despite these obstacles, help for victims does exist. “There is help and there are people that are looking for [you] and do care," Jean-Baptiste says.

If you believe that you or someone you know might be at risk or is being victimized, the National Human Trafficking Hotline can help. You can text 233733, use the chat feature on their website, or call them at 888-373-7888. They can connect you with local organizations and support to figure out your next steps.

If there's any possibility that an abusive person has access to your phone or internet history, clear your internet history, and consider using a payphone or borrowing someone else's phone instead.

[rebelmouse-image 19397873 dam="1" original_size="5184x3456" caption="Photo by Jenna Jacobs/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Jenna Jacobs/Unsplash.

13. Recognizing the red flags can make a big difference, too.

Knowing what to look for, and being aware of what healthy relationships do and don't look like, can be lifesaving for young people.

For example, Jean-Baptiste advises caution when someone offers you a gift. Before accepting anything, always ask if there's an expectation to pay that person back or reciprocate.

And if anyone tells you to do something with your body or pressures you, it's time to reach out for support. “You should have the full right to consent to what you do with your body," she says.

14. Don't allow a trafficker to be the first person to validate someone who's struggling.

If you're not a victim yourself, it's important to check in with your peers who may be having a tough time. If a trafficker is the first person to reach out to someone who's struggling, those individuals are much more likely to be exploited.

“We need to be more involved in our community," Milne says, noting that young people who feel supported by those around them are less likely to look to an abusive person for validation.

Jean-Baptiste says this is why young people whose families or communities have all but abandoned them, like homeless and LGBTQ+ youth, are frequent targets. “[Traffickers are] willing to have [a] conversation… that we're not having in our community."

If communities can fill the needs that traffickers try to exploit, those young people would be much safer.

15. And remember, your body is yours. Period.

Too often, it's suggested to young people — especially teens — that they should defer to the adults in their lives when making decisions. However, when it comes to our bodies, the only person in charge is you.

[rebelmouse-image 19397874 dam="1" original_size="2992x2000" caption="Photo by Oscar Obians/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Oscar Obians/Unsplash.

“No one should tell you that you have to do anything with your body… [they have] no right, no access, no privilege," Jean-Baptiste says. “You belong to you."

When we're educated and vigilant, we can make a difference in our communities! Learn more about how to get involved, and help us work towards a future where youth are no longer victimized.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

Freya from Maya Higa's YouTube video.

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Thanks to one YouTube poster with a passion for animals and an endearing sense of humor, all questions shall be answered. Well, maybe not all questions. But at the very least, you’ll have eight minutes of insanely cute footage.

In a series titled “Tiny Mic Interviews,” Maya Higa approaches little beasties with a microphone so small she has to hold it with just her thumb and forefinger. And yes, 99% of the animals try to eat it.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

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Every single day, babies across the world are born prematurely, which means that they're born before 37 weeks of gestation.

In Canada, about 29,000 infants are born prematurely each year, roughly 1 in every 13. But in the United States, around 400,000 to 500,000 are born early. That's about 1 in every 8 to 10 babies born in the U.S.!

Red Méthot, a Canadian photographer and student, decided to capture the resilience of many of these kids for a school photography project.

He's the father of two prematurely born kids himself, so the topic is important to him.

"My son was born at 29 weeks and my daughter at 33 weeks," he told me in a phone interview. "These are the kind of pictures I would like to have seen when my first child was born — they've been through that, and they are great now."

Méthot said he knows not all preemie stories have a happy ending — one of his photos features a child whose twin passed away after they were born prematurely — but for so many kids who come early, they go on to experience a great life.

Meet several of the beautiful kids he photographed!

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