Story By: Chris Frost

Ventura– The Museum of Ventura County had an important and influential event, March 7, as the 13th Annual STOP Human Trafficking Walk came off without a hitch and raised awareness about the problem throughout the world.

The event featured survivors, resources for people who need them, and a voice that said “We do this, so others don’t have to go through the crime.”

The group left the museum and went to Main Street in Ventura, proceeded to California Street, and stopped at all the different intersections with their signs to get a good response from the motorists.

From there, the group crossed over and returned to the museum on Main Street.

Local Organizer Debbie Gohlke from the Oxnard Soroptimist Club said the idea for the walk to STOP Human Trafficking came from the Soroptimist International of the America’s, which is their federation.

“We’re in 22 countries, and they launched this program 13 years ago,” she said. “They introduced it to us in Philadelphia, and they asked all the clubs to go back to their communities and put on an event.”

At the first event, she was a committee of one, and she had it at the Oxnard Transportation Center with about 20 people.

“Every year, it has grown, and now we have five clubs from Ventura County, including Oxnard, Ventura, Filmore, Camarillo, and the Conejos,” she said. “We all collaborate and work on this together. You can do better things with a bigger team.”

This is their third year at the Museum of Ventura County.

“We’ve moved around, but I think this is our final home now,” she said. “It’s a central gathering place, and everyone knows the museum.”

The Soroptimists focuses on improving the lives of women and girls through programs that lead to economic and educational empowerment.

“We award scholarships to women who are going back to the workforce, and they have to go back to school and get additional training or college education so that they can apply for scholarships,” she said.

The group invests in girls through the “Dream Program,” so women can get a scholarship to go to school and be a nurse, teacher, or doctor.

“Hopefully, we can help make their dream come true,” she said. “We work with at-risk youth, and we have a “Dream it, Be it,” program for girls in high school ages 14-17. It’s going on its third year, and it’s going on in four high schools. We’ll have about 80 schoolgirls there.”

Survivor Heather Gonzalez and her entire family are victims of crime and are now survivors of sexual assault, and it included her daughter, Jillian.

“She’s here to say that it happened to her, and she’s talking about it,” Heather said. “She speaks on behalf of other kids who survived sexual assault. We are with the voices of Ventura County, with the Family Justice Center. We talk about what’s important for survivors to get when they need services through the victims advocate office through the Family Justice Center.”

Jillian got to be a part of what the Family Justice Center should look like, Heather said, and the sky is Jillian’s sky.

“When we were going through the crime, all the different things that we needed as a family took a lot of time away from the family,” Heather said. “We had the resources and time to go to counseling and all the different things that we needed to do for each member of the family that was a victim of the crime. What the Family Justice Center did was all the services you need together in the county and recognized that we needed to stop revictimizing victims and allow them to come to one place to get all the services they need.”

When Jillian walked into the New Family Justice Center, the ceiling was two different drop ceilings.

“Jillian said to Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Jump that you should make that ceiling a sky,” Heather said. “When I (Jillian) first went to Safe Harbor to talk to different people, I didn’t want to look at anybody in the eye. For people to come in, look up, and not have to look at somebody would make her feel more comfortable.”

Jillian talked about the Voices of Ventura County, which gave her a voice, and it made her feel like she was not alone.

“You have people there that will help you through it,” she said. “That’s something that I needed, and I got from some people. At the Family Justice Center, you get it all.”

Jillian advises people who are survivors of sexual assault to come forward.

“If you come forward, there is a person that doesn’t have to,” she said. “It shows that you are not alone, and you can prevent it from happening again.”

Heather added the perpetrator of the crime had done it for years, and nobody talked about it and swept it under the rug.

“We came forward and talked about it, so it doesn’t happen again from this particular offender,” she said. “Our journey started with if we could change one family’s life by her telling Jillian’s story, that’s what we are going to do.”

Erika Barus ran the Forever Found Booth at the event, and she said it’s a Christian-based foundation that delivers children from sex and labor slavery in India, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Ventura County.

“Part of what Forever Found does is give you literature about what you can do to help and see what is going on,” she said. “That way, you can notice things that aren’t correct. Forever Found has a huge online presence, and they can tell you a whole bunch.”

Barus said if you see a child at school covered in bruises, you need to be aware.

“If there are unexplained absences, or not as well dressed as they have been in the past, perhaps,” she said. “It’s not just one thing. It’s knowing that if you put these things together; all of a sudden, they’re dressing kind of sexy and have a lot of bruises on their legs, or maybe they’re more withdrawn suddenly, that may be a sign that something’s going on, and you may want to alert somebody in charge, like an authority figure”

Donna Passero added they have a Forever Found home in California and India.

“We not only rescue women who are sex trafficked, but we also rescue women who are labor trafficked,” she said.

Forever Found works with the authorities and also has a mentor program.

“It’s amazing,” Barrus said. “It’s a survivor mentor program, and there are trained people who go through a whole course to help these kids, like a Big Brother or Big Sister Program, so they can become reacclimated to what a normal childhood is.”

Supervisor John Zaragoza felt honored to present a resolution to the Soroptomist Club commemorating the Walk to STOP Human Trafficking and planned to walk, as well.

“I’ve been working with Debbie (Gohlke) for 13 years since it started at the Oxnard Transportation Center,” Zaragoza said. “The other day, we had a resolution presented to the Soroptomists, and it’s great to see all the young ladies go out there and try to prevent human trafficking. There are also young men that get involved with that.”

Jan Reaver from the Soroptomist Group of Ventura supports the effort because human trafficking should not happen to any woman or man.

“We have to make our feelings and beliefs known,” she said. “Kids should watch out for any predator who tries to talk them into going along with them or something questionable. Unfortunately, kids are often taught to trust or bond adults.”

Gaea Verneris came with her three-year-old named Bayzil, and she been with the Soroptomists for approximately two years.

“I own my own financial planning company called Legacy One Financial, and I sponsored the event,” she said. “I am out here to support the Soroptomists and the STOP movement. When I had Bayzil, I started hanging around the Soroptomists, and this event spoke to me because of how I feel when I hear the speakers who have been impacted. That could be my little girl.”

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