Kevin Riordan: South Jersey group raises awareness of human trafficking

Kelly Master chats with Jodi Sparks of West Deptford at a breakfast meeting of the anti-trafficking group Dining for Dignity at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Cherry Hill.
Kelly Master chats with Jodi Sparks of West Deptford at a breakfast meeting of the anti-trafficking group Dining for Dignity at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Cherry Hill. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 10, 2012

At the monthly breakfast meetings of Dining for Dignity, the food is tasty but the subject matter is unappetizing.

Human trafficking. Exploitation of women and girls. Online prostitution across the globe and around the corner.

"It's happening through your iPad, it's happening through your iPhone," says Kelly Master, leader of the nonprofit group. "Is it happening in America? You bet."

The Collingswood mother of five, a self-described abuse survivor and devout Christian, founded Dining for Dignity in 2011. She was inspired by a friend from Wenonah who is a full-time missionary.

"It's no longer possible for me not to do something about this," she says.

Blessed with a vivid personality, abundant energy, and social-media savvy, Master seeks to educate the public about involuntary servitude, which can range from underage girls lured into prostitution to illegal immigrants in virtual servitude in nail salons.

Trafficking has recently become the focus of stepped-up enforcement by New Jersey Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa.

In a statement last month, Chiesa described human trafficking as "modern-day slavery" and New Jersey as "a prime location for domestic and international human trafficking" because of its status as a transportation corridor.

Since 2010, nearly 150 survivors have contacted the Newark office of the Polaris Project, says Kate Keisel, New Jersey program coordinator for the national organization that fights trafficking.

"So much of it is hidden," says Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for Chiesa. "The attorney general wants to uncover more of these cases and address it head-on."

Doing something similar, in a modest way, 30 Dining for Dignity supporters - most of them committed Christians - broke bread together at the Crowne Plaza Philadelphia- Cherry Hill hotel Saturday morning.

Digital tablet in hand, Master worked the crowd with a lively presentation that mixed a preacher's oratory with down-to-earth wit.

Acknowledging that boys can also be victims, she spoke mostly about the needs of exploited women and girls. They need to know that they have value as human beings, not as merchandise.

Despite the occasional murmured "amen" rising from the tables, this was not a gathering of prudes eager to pass judgment - except on the traffickers.

The women and handful of men in the room talked about a moral imperative to help human beings who are being abused, even voluntarily, for profit.

The issue "grips my heart," said Irene Schepis, 59, an account representative from Marlton.

"I have two granddaughters, 8 and 9," added Cass Mosser, a retired secretary from Mount Laurel. "I want to be an abolitionist" for human trafficking.

Several Dining for Dignity participants also reach out to strippers and women in the porn industry. Some bring small gifts - earrings, lighters, cards for doughnuts - to dancers in South Jersey and Philadelphia clubs.

West Deptford resident Jodi Sparks, 34, mother of three young sons, says she is appalled to see women turned into commodities.

"I've listened to people talk down to these women instead of finding out their stories," she says. "Somebody needs to love these girls."

Somebody does.

Master shows me the elegantly simple pendant she wears around her neck.

It was made by a prostitute to whom her missionary friend, Carol Gleeson, ministers in Guatemala. Gleeson runs a program in which women who work in brothels keep 100 percent of the profits from the jewelry.

"The woman who made this piece may never have to sell herself again," Master says.

Gleeson - a retired Camden County Vocational and Technical School teacher from Wenonah - returns her friend's admiration via e-mail.

Master's work, she says, offers "hope . . . to people most consider unreachable."


Kevin Riordan:

A South Jersey group raises awareness about human trafficking. www.philly.com/dignity


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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