SUN CITY CENTER – Just 16 years old, the mentally challenged teenage girl had been living in captivity for months, forced to perform sexual acts with anyone willing to pay her captor.
She was finally discovered at a southeast Hillsborough County migrant farmworker’s camp during a 2010 investigation by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Tampa Bay area Human Trafficking Task Force.
“This girl was rescued from a nightmare, which could only have gotten worse,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee in a press conference following the arrest of the teen’s 25-year-old captor. “Now there is one less predator on the streets.”
However, there are plenty more lining up to take his place, added Gee.
With an estimated 2.5 million people being enslaved in the United States, Florida is one of the top three states in the nation for sex and labor trafficking. And Tampa Bay is considered the hub, according to the Human Trafficking Task Force.
The majority of those held in bondage are teenage girls with an average age of 12, according to the task force. If not rescued, their life expectancy is seven years.
Years ago, when Sun City Center resident Sarah Hardy first heard these statistics, she was stunned. A longtime child advocate in her native Massachusetts, Hardy said she was alarmed to learn that young girls were being held in captivity in the SouthShore area.
“It’s happening right now,” said Hardy. “Somewhere nearby, a girl is being held against her will. It’s just frightening. And most people have no idea it’s happening right here in South Shore.”
Hardy didn’t have to look far to find other enraged Sun City Center residents.
Three years ago, Hardy and fellow residents June Lawless and Sally Dittman formed the Sun City Center Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking to increase awareness of and fight human trafficking in South Shore. They have since taken their campaign to area churches and clubs, recruiting 65 more supporters.
Working with the St. Petersburg-based, nonprofit Bridging Freedom Inc., the nonprofit SCC group is helping to raise funds to build a safe house for teen girls rescued from a life of sex slavery.
“People are concerned,” said Hardy. “Florida is trying to crack down on this crime but, unfortunately, the state has no extra funds to put toward a safe place for these girls. Currently, there are only three safe houses in the United States where these girls are securely hidden from pimps and can recover their self-esteem – Washington, D.C., Texas and Georgia. We need many more safe houses.”
Bridging Freedom founder Laura Hamilton is now raising $2 million and seeking 50 acres of property to build a safe house for teens and young women in Tampa Bay who are rescued by law enforcement officials.
And the Sun City Center group is doing its part to raise funds with the help of 4,000 rubber ducks.
For 22 years, Hardy chaired an annual rubber duck derby at Harrington Memorial Hospital in Southbridge, Mass. Two years ago, the hospital purchased a new flock of rubber ducks for its derby and offered to donate its old rubber ducks to Hardy so she could start her own derby in Sun City center.
Hardy chuckles as she recalls the 18-wheeler filled with barrels of rubber ducks arriving in Sun City Center.
“The driver had no idea of what the cargo was,” she said. “He was really surprised when I told him he was hauling 4,000 rubber ducks.”
The flock of toy ducks became the focus of the Sun City Center Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking’s first fundraiser in April 2013.
“We held our first Quack-tacular Lucky Duck Day and raised $5,500 for Bridging Freedom,” she said.
She hopes to double that donation at the second annual Quack-tacular scheduled for Saturday, April 12, at the Sun City Center Community Association Atrium outdoor pool from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Supporters are invited to purchase Lucky Duck tickets for $5 per duck or $25 for six ducks. Each ticket will have a number that corresponds with a rubber duck floating in the pool. Five prize-winning ducks will be selected at 2 p.m. by a blindfolded swimmer.
Prizes include a grand prize of $250 and four other cash awards of $100, $75, $50 and $25. Ten to 15 other prizes will be awarded, including four gift certificates to the Club Renaissance Spa, a basket of beauty products and basket of cheer, six sets of handmade jewelry, an original watercolor, golf club covers and a handmade teddy bear.
Hardy noted that the parking lot at the atrium is under construction so residents are urged to park their golf carts in the nearby United Community Church parking lot.
Quack-tacular tickets are available at the SCC Atrium Kiosk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and at the Kings Point North Clubhouse, Winn Dixie and the Renaissance Club Spa. In addition, tickets will be sold at United Community Church, Prince of Peace Catholic Church, SCC United Methodist Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe on Sunday, March 30 and April 6 following morning services.
“It’s really a fun way to raise money,” said Hardy. “And seeing 4,000 rubber ducks in the swimming pool is quite a sight.”
In addition to the duck derby, the Diamondettes will sell sandwiches, the Front Porch Pickers will entertain from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. and the Swim Dancers will present a water show from 1:30 to 2 p.m.
Also during the event, the Sun City Center Community Campaign Against Human Trafficking will host an information table where prospective members can obtain information on human trafficking and sign up to be volunteers and supporters.
“Education and awareness is very important to our mission,” said Hardy. “Many of these girls are tricked by predators they meet at the mall or encounter online. So we offer an online training course and make regular presentations at local clubs and churches.”
During Human Awareness Month in January, the group hosted a free presentation of the documentary of a teenager sex slave, “The Abduction of Eden,” in the Florida Room of the community association, attracting 90 people.
“We were amazed at the turnout,” said Hardy. “Of course, the free popcorn may have played a part in it.”
And in September, the group presented the human trafficking documentary “Too Close to Home” in the community association auditorium and at the Ruskin Firehouse Cultural Center.
“There was only one empty seat,” said Hardy.
To learn more about the fundraiser, contact Sally Dittman, president of the Sun City Center Campaign Against Human Trafficking at [email protected] or (813) 633-4647 or Hardy at [email protected] or (813) 938-1351.
Anyone wishing to donate to Bridging Freedom’s effort to build a safe house can visit www.gofundme.com/BridgingFreedom or www.bridgingfreedom.org/contact-us/.
D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]