In Guatemala the summer after her freshman year at Drexel, Kaelee Shepherd sat in the passenger seat of a car as it stopped at a red light. A young girl, maybe 7 or 8, walked up to her window.
“She’s dressed in a clown costume,” Shepherd remembered. “Her face is just completely blank. She looked worn out.”
Wordlessly, the girl started juggling for a few seconds. Then she stopped and stretched out her hand, palm turned up.
Shepherd looked around and saw other children at car windows, doing the same thing. Something was wrong, she knew, but she felt helpless. Then the light turned green. But somehow, she thought, she needed to do something.
“From that day on, I always think about that little girl,” said Shepherd, who’s now finishing her fourth year at Drexel. Three years after that trip to Guatemala, she is indeed doing something. She’s working alongside Donna Sabella, a faculty member in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, to help educate more people about the global scourge of human trafficking and encourage them to take action to fight it.
Shepherd this year founded a student group devoted to the issue of human trafficking, Students Advocating Against Slavery, with Sabella as its faculty adviser. And Sabella, an assistant clinical professor and director of global studies for CNHP, will begin overseeing a new Human Trafficking Certificate program in the fall. Sabella is also a founder and associate editor of Journal for Human Trafficking, which is scheduled to publish its first edition in January 2015.
“There’s a lot of interest across the board in human trafficking,” Sabella said. “It’s an area of social justice, and it’s an area that people in the helping professions are often interested in.”
Shepherd became interested in the issue after she watched a video about child sex trafficking produced by the organization Love146 during her freshman year at Drexel.
“I was just taken aback,” Shepherd said. “I had no idea that something like that existed.”
After she saw that little girl in Guatemala, she was further convinced that she needed to take action. After a chance encounter with Sabella, a longtime mental health nurse who took interest in the issue after working with Philadelphia-area victims of trafficking, she asked for help starting an organization.
Now the group has officers and members in place, and this spring it co-sponsored its first major event: a talk by author E. Benjamin Skinner. Shepherd and her fellow members aim to educate the Drexel community about human trafficking and slavery, while also partnering with local and international organizations to offer help.
“We want to see a world without slavery,” said Shepherd, who's serving as the group's president. Other officers are Selah Stivers, vice president; Alexis Pozonsky, treasurer; and Anna Clapham, secretary.
Students interested in joining the group can indicate their interest in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sabella will aid in the trafficking education effort in her own way with her certificate program, which has been in the works for a while. The three-course sequence, intended for individuals who already have bachelor’s degrees, will teach students about the people involved in trafficking, as well as the economics and policies related to the multibillion-dollar, international shadow industry. She plans to invite both former victims of trafficking as well as former traffickers.
The subject matter could appeal to people working in the fields of health care, public health, law enforcement, social work and more, she said. And it’s a subject in which people from all walks of life can be interested.
“It just robs people of their humanity and their dignity,” Sabella said. “It’s illegal. It’s immoral on so many levels. People get worked up about puppy farms and dog mills, and we’re talking about human beings.”