My father trafficked me throughout my entire childhood. It looked nothing like people think.

I saw this poster today and I was going to just let it go, but then I kept feeling tugged to say something.

Melanie Cholish/Facebook

While this poster is great to bring attention to the issue of child trafficking, it is a "shocking" picture of a young girl tied up. It has that dark gritty feeling. I picture her in a basement tied to a dripping pipe.

While that sounds awful, it's important to know that trafficking children in the US is not all of that. I can't say it never is—I don't know. What I do know is most young trafficked children aren't sitting in a basement tied up. They have families, and someone—usually in their family—is trafficking them.


I'm pretty open about my story. My father trafficked me from the ages of about 5 or 6 until I was a teenager. Knowing this, I can say, I was never once tied up in a dark place such as this picture. It's important for people to educate themselves on what trafficking can really look like.

Many, many times I walked into an amusement parks dressing room—Hershey, Dorney, etc.—with my father, told to wait in the stall, and a few minutes later another man came in acting like he was looking for his daughter. And that easily, a "drop" was made. Out I would walk holding his hand, nothing anyone would think twice about. Usually I'd be given something like an ice cream cone, etc.

And like me, these children are often not treated "badly." I mean, yes, they're treated awfully and violated beyond words. I mean they're are not hit, tied up, or beat up. Most of the time, they're treated with fake kindness (which really fucks up children's trust later on in life). But they're often praised, given treats, and made to feel like what is happening is a good (and normal or because they're special).

How many vacations we went on where I was left for a minute at the pool, until a man came and I left with him for a while. Airports where I was passed over to another man in a crowd, looking like any girl going from her dad or uncle to her dad or uncle. Again, a public drop and nothing suspicious.

Most children trafficked in the US are so conditioned they don't know anything else. It's their normal. I think back as an adult and think, "Why didn't I scream out for help? Make a scene?" But I had to forgive my inner child. There was no reason I knew to scream out for help. I wasn't in danger; this was just my normal life.

I say all of this to simply say, it's really important we bring attention to child trafficking in the US. VERY important. And posters like this can get the conversation going, but we also need to educate people that it doesn't all look like this. I lived in Robesonia, a tiny nothing town. My father was a little league coach. My mother knew and helped some with these happenings; and she was just a stay-at-home, small town mom. These things happen everywhere and can look very normal.

Best thing we can do is talk to children. We don't need to be graphic; but teachers, schools, need to talk to children about things like this in a child-safe way. Assume these children aren't being taken to doctors. Teachers can make a huge difference. Talk to children. Go with your gut. Schools need to not be scared to act on what they feel. Conrad Wesier had a social worker in the elementary school who pulled me out of class on more than one occasion after teachers noticed "things" and it went nowhere. Social services were never notified. And they should have been. Period.

And what you can do is watch. Pay attention. Be mindful. If you're waiting in line at a park, notice who goes in and out with what child. If you see something; speak up. If you're wrong, fine you ruined someone's day, apologize. If you're right, you saved someone's life.

This post originally appeared on Melanie Cholish's Facebook page. It has been edited lightly for publication.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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