Posted by Steve Lettau on Jul 27, 2022

Combating human trafficking, a scourge which impacts an estimated 40 million people worldwide, is the goal of the Rotary Action Group Against Slavery and several cause-based Rotary clubs.

By Frank Bures

Photo Caption: Students on their way to morning class at Pace Universal, a school for girls in Piyali Junction, outside Kolkata, India, that is funded in part by Rotary clubs and The Rotary Foundation. It was founded by Rotarian Deepa Biswas Willingham to educate girls and protect them from slavery, trafficking, and early childhood marriage in a community where these are common dangers for girls. Anindito Mukherjee / Rotary International

When Dave McCleary first heard about human trafficking, it seemed like something that happened far away, probably overseas. But not in the United States. And certainly not in his hometown.

Then one day he invited a speaker who knew otherwise to talk to his Rotary club in Roswell, Georgia. Her name was Melissa. She was originally from Roswell and had gone to the same high school McCleary’s girls had attended. Melissa dropped out at 16 and was offered a modeling job by a man who turned out to be a sex trafficker. For two years, she was trapped and trafficked in downtown Atlanta before police and a local organization helped her escape.

After the meeting, another Rotarian approached Melissa and gave her a big hug. McCleary asked him how he knew the young woman. He said she used to babysit his kids when she was 12, and he had wondered what had happened to her.

"For me, that was when it became real," says McCleary, who is now chair of the Rotary Action Group Against Slavery. "Now it wasn't someone else's problem. And I remember thinking at the time: Rotary — we're in 200 countries, with 34,000 clubs and 1.2 million Rotarians, and we tackle the tough issues. Why not slavery?"

Of the many global issues, human trafficking (or modern slavery, as it is sometimes called) is one of the toughest to combat. It's estimated that more than 40 million people are trafficked across the world. "It's probably the largest human rights travesty existing today," says Karen Walkowski, founder of the Rotary Club of District 5950 Ending Human Trafficking. "Bigger than all the refugees, all the displaced people. It's one of the three largest illegal industries, bringing in about $150 billion in revenue every year."