GRAND ISLAND — Volunteers are needed to train hotel and motel staff members on how to recognize signs of human trafficking and the proper way to respond.
The training will be done Oct. 14 at the Grand Island YWCA. Lunch is included in the session, which will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The hotel and motel project was announced Wednesday morning by Valerie Roth, who is chair of the Grand Island Area Coalition on Trafficking, also known as GI-ACT. That group serves Hall, Hamilton, Howard, Merrick and Adams counties. Volunteers will train hotel and motel staff members “on how to realize, recognize and respond to human trafficking,” Roth said.
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The project will be done in collaboration with the Grand Island YWCA. Amy Bennett, YWCA executive director, believes the project fits very well into the YWCA’s mission. Trafficking involves different genders, races and ethnicities, Bennett said. “But we know that it primarily affects women, people of color and people from adverse backgrounds.”
The YMCA will train the volunteers. “We need somewhere between 20 and 25 volunteers to go into the hotels and motels to conduct the training. They work in teams of two — one trainer and one ambassador,” Bennett said.
Eight people spoke at the kickoff, including Sen. Dan Quick.
Investigator Tony Kavan of the Nebraska State Patrol referred to Sir Robert Peel’s principles for ethical policing, formulated in 1829. Peel contended that “the police are just members of the public given full-time pay to pay attention to crime and disorder, which is incumbent upon all members of a civilized society,” Kavan said.
When law enforcement started trying to wrap its head around the issue of human trafficking, “it became clear right away that this could not be a policing-only issue,” Kavan said, adding that it takes everyone to help.
Kavan also said that “anybody in the state of Nebraska will tell you that Grand Island is far and away ahead of everybody else” in its multi-disciplinary community approach to the problem.
The hotel-motel program was started in 2014 by the Omaha-based Coalition on Human Trafficking. In addition to Omaha, it has since been implemented in Lincoln, York, Norfolk, Fremont, Blair, Wayne and Wahoo.
“Efforts like this happen because diligent and interested volunteers take up the challenge,” said Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele.
Volunteers need to be thanked for their efforts, Steele said. “Volunteerism is really the backbone and the glue that holds our communities together.”
It is a high priority for his administration “that Grand Island and all of our local communities are safe havens, that we are a haven for children and families and community-minded people,” Steele said.
Grand Island Police Chief Robert Falldorf said his department was contacted several years ago by the attorney general’s office “with the idea of putting together task forces across the state to address human trafficking. I have to admit there was a hesitancy in the law enforcement world to really get involved at first. We really didn’t know that we had human trafficking issues within our communities or within the state,” Falldorf said.
“The deeper we got into it — the more we got involved in it — we realized that ‘Yeah, this is an issue, not only in our community here but in smaller communities in Nebraska and obviously across the United States,’” Falldorf said.
Grand Island police have worked with Grand Island hotels and motels in the past. They assembled lists of individuals whom it might be smart to keep an eye on. The hotel and motel training is “going to be huge for us,” Falldorf said. Police officers can’t be everywhere, he said.
“We are so lucky in Grand Island and in Hall County to have law enforcement agencies who are truly invested in investigating cases like this — who have folks on the ground who know what to look for and what to do when they see the signs of trafficking,” said Deputy Hall County Attorney Sarah Hinrichs.
The community, she said, is fully engaged in combating the problem. The hotel-motel program is another good step, Hinrichs said.
Hinrichs pointed out that the community is part of the judicial system. “Our community members are the people that sit on our juries. They’re going to have to hear cases and be presented with evidence of trafficking, and they’re going to have that much more education and information when they come to serve as jurors and serve as part of our judicial system.”
Speaking of human trafficking, Brad Mellema of the Convention and Visitors Bureau said, “These activities are not welcome in Grand Island, and shining a light on these types of things is not easy to do, because it’s constant and it’s everyday.”
He saluted the professionals at local hotels. Whether they work at the front desk, in housekeeping or other areas, they recognize very quickly “when something isn’t quite right,” Mellema said.
Those employees have already had some training and the hotel-motel project will be even more help, Mellema said. “It’s unfortunate that this will probably be on ongoing process for many years into the future,” he said.
Roth noted that the Mark and Renee Miller Family Foundation kicked off the project with a $2,800 grant.
If you are interested in volunteering for the hotel and motel training, visit the Heartland United Way website at www.heartlandunitedway.org or call the YWCA at (308) 384-9922.