ASHEBORO — When more than a dozen college women were victimized by human traffickers in the Dominican Republic, Lantern Rescue helped set them free.
They are just a few of nearly 1,000 victims rescued in the past two years by the organization headquartered at 1001 Sunset Ave., Asheboro.
Whitney Miller, chief engagement officer at the Lantern Rescue Foundation, talked recently about the organization’s mission and operations around the world.
“We’re a nonprofit that works internationally against human trafficking, persecuted people, and against conflict and crisis,” Miller said. Currently, Lantern Rescue can count 989 people rescued and more than 450 investigations opened.
The co-founders go by Ren and Mark, their last names not provided because of the nature of their work. Ren is a former Marine who served in intelligence, venturing into unknown places of the world.
She met Mark and they discovered that they both had a passion “to effectively combat the world’s fastest growing criminal industry,” human trafficking. At the end of 2020, they established the 501c3 nonprofit organization, Lantern Rescue Foundation. They worked remotely until formally opening the Asheboro office in November.
Lantern Rescue works not only to rescue victims and prosecute traffickers but also to advocate for the victims after rescue. The organization also recruits and trains team members in the field.
Miller likened their mission to the old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” By training law enforcement and other recruits in foreign lands, they become self-sufficient in handling human trafficking. “We’re training people in countries when we’re not there,” Miller said.
“People are the new commodity around the world,” she said. “The idea (for traffickers) with women and children is you lose some but you can get more.”
That’s why it’s important to build case files during investigations for prosecutors to use against the perpetrators. Then the court system determines how they’re punished.
Training includes tactics and the use of technology to find victims. Lantern Rescue, Miller said, “creates a sustainable model for them.”
Representatives with the organization meet with leaders of a country or area to “help them see the need to help the persecuted, the displaced and the oppressed,” Miller said. Border control is important since victims can be taken across borders where trafficking isn’t taken as seriously. At borders, team members look for children who don’t appear to be with parents or families.
Miller said Lantern Rescue currently has operations in the Caribbean, Central America, Ukraine, Asia/Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. They have a team member, a native Ukrainian, who is working with a church to help displaced people, serving them meals out of a warehouse. Miller said they have served 40,000 refugees.
Lantern Rescue has become known internationally so that now “countries are begging us to come. We have a lot of partners coming along, allowing us to expand. In 2023, we’ll be working with people persecuted for their beliefs in the Middle East and Africa. It’s a continuation of conflict and crisis, like Ukraine. The needs are so big in all three areas.”
Organizers also plan to take on, domestically, child sex exploitation.
The Asheboro headquarters has a small crew working on marketing, revenue, grant writing, digital media and operations. A few are on the payroll but many involved with Lantern Rescue are volunteers, Miller said.
“We all started as volunteers. There was a compelling desire to change lives and rewrite the stories for victims. It was a decision of the heart,” she said. “Now, we get to be in the fight every day.”
The name, Lantern Rescue, comes from the Underground Railroad of the mid-1800s when runaway slaves were taken to free states. Miller said, “Lanterns were hung in windows to let people know it was a safe place.” Just like Harriet Tubman, known for her Underground Railroad rescues, Miller said, “We’re going into dark places of the world.
“During COVID, we began seeing the depths of evil,” she said. “Maybe we slowed down and God peeled back layers to show us. We see the depth of evil can be overwhelming, but knowing other people are in the fight makes it more bearable.”
The Dominican Republic case, for instance, saw human traffickers befriending college women from 13 countries. The women weren’t impoverished but their families were depending on them being successful. The traffickers pulled them in by saying they could help them pay off their college loans, offering them jobs after school.
The women, some of them mothers, were taken to the Dominican Republic, where their documents were taken and they were sent to hotels, where they were forced to sleep with as many as 15 men each day.
After the women were rescued and the traffickers taken into custody, Lantern Rescue helped two of the women open their own hair salon. The two then hired other survivors.
Miller told more horrendous stories, such as children working all day in steamy brick mills, women forced into marriages and even organ harvesting.
Miller said Lantern Rescue resources from November to January will go toward the African practice of voodoo children sacrifices. That’s when children ages 8 and younger are drained of the blood and their organs are harvested.
“These are real things happening,” Miller said. “We’ll be addressing that in 2023. There’s got to be a shift in understanding that it’s not OK. We need to establish relationships with people to help them change the culture.”
In their recruitment of team members, Lantern Rescue goes through a vetting process to ensure that potentials aren’t “bad guys” under cover. They “seek out people with a heart for the mission, not just skills,” Miller said. “They must want to rescue people.
“We recognize we’re blessed to be a part of doing God’s work,” she said. “I feel like I’m at the throne room of God every day, with the things we’re able to accomplish. We all share the same heart.”
To learn more about Lantern Rescue, visit https://lanternrescue.org/.