KEARNEY — Amber Smith wants to stop sex trafficking before it starts.

Smith, the regional director of The Set Me Free Project in Nebraska, will lead a free, adults-only sex trafficking prevention workshop 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Oct. 12 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 2304 Second Ave. She will teach adults how to keep children and teens safe.

The Set Me Free Project is a nonprofit that aims to end human and sex trafficking by educating adults and youths in grades 3-12 on the topic. Founded in 2014, it has offices in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota.

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“We believe there is a big difference between awareness and prevention,” the SMFP website states. “Awareness about sex trafficking is important, but without the knowledge to prevent it, the problem will continue. Prevention education teaches people how to recognize victims of sex trafficking and the grooming of potential victims, and how to lower and/or eliminate sex trafficking in their area.”

At her presentation, Smith said she will take “a deep-dive” into social media.

“This is a great opportunity for parents to learn about what’s happening on their child’s cell phone, what apps they’re using, how the apps work, how children are at risk and the precautions they should take,” she said.

“I often ask parents how often they check their child’s cell phone. They tell me, ‘Only when the child gets in trouble.’ I ask, ‘Are you being proactive or reactive?’”

A follow-up program

The program is a follow-up to the sex trafficking program Feb. 28 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church that featured Teresa Houser, executive director of Magdalene Omaha, a nonprofit that provides healing, recovery and economic empowerment for female sex trafficking victims.

Cindy Dennis, administrator at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church who invited Houser to speak, is working hard to keep the sex trafficking topic at the forefront in Kearney. This summer, she was cleaning out her purse when she found a card for Stephanie Olson, the CEO of The Set Me Free Project.

Dennis went to the SMFP website and read the following statement: “In today’s world of ever-changing social media and technology, how do we know our kids are safe? The truth is, our children are at risk. Sex traffickers and predators prowl on social media platforms to locate and ensnare unsuspecting youth. We want to help you protect them.”

She called Smith and the two met to talk. Smith excitedly accepted Dennis’s invitation to speak here.

“We have yet to really open the gates of Kearney,” Smith said. “Our focus is youth and families. We want to engage with everyone. In Kearney, we hope we can start conversations and get people passionate. People need to tell the schools we need this education for our youth,” she said.

Set Me Free Project

The Set Me Free Project, based in Omaha, serves Nebraska and Iowa. Smith works in Grand Island. She has been on staff since March after working in nonprofits, including the YMCA (“that’s where I discovered my love of people”) since 2013.

“I’m a sexual assault survivor. I’ve done my healing and I was ready to give back,” she said. A talented public speaker, she offered to volunteer at SMFP to help prevent human trafficking, but she soon was offered a job.

“We’re growing rapidly,” she said.

SMFP gives six to eight presentations each week around the state. Speakers have appeared in more than 100 schools in Nebraska, “and every school brings us back,” she said. “We are in very high demand. We ask for three months advance notice, but we try to accommodate every request.”

Sexual exploitation

Sex trafficking is exploiting people sexually by force, fraud or coercion, Houser said here last winter. “Those involved treat it as a business. These people ‘work’ for them. While 60 percent of the victims are female, 40 percent are male, and many are children,” she said.

She said that more than 900 individuals of every age, gender and race are sold in Nebraska every month — one-third of that activity happens outside of Omaha.

“The younger the person, the higher the price. There is big money to be made,” she said.

Trafficking is everywhere

The Set Me Free Project focuses on prevention. Smith will talk about how sex traffickers approach young people.

“Many girls and guys feel unworthy of love, so when someone like a trafficker shows them love in a friendship or romantic way, it draws the victim in,” she said.

“Society tells men at a young age that it’s OK to sexualize a woman’s body, saying, ‘Boys will be boys’ when it comes to industries like porn. From this, boys aren’t taught they can be better and stand up against these things.”

Smith, a past AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at the Central Nebraska Council on Alcoholism and Addiction in Grand Island, said both human and sex trafficking happen “everywhere.”

“It’s a myth that sex trafficking happens mostly in the form of kidnapping. According to International Human Trafficking Institute, it is more likely that traffickers build a relationship and groom the victim first,” she said.

“People are beginning to recognize that human trafficking is happening here, in your neighborhood. Young adults and children who use the internet at home are susceptible to becoming a victim. A relationship can quickly go from being strangers to being controlling and abusive,” she said.

“It’s affecting children — your children. Human trafficking doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anybody.”