VANCOUVER — Ask Linda Smith what she hopes people will say at her funeral, and you startle her. She leans back in her chair. Stares into space.
Finally she says softly, “She showed up.” She thinks for a moment more. Then she nods. “She showed up.”
Smith, 66, has certainly showed up. As a teen caring for four younger siblings and working part-time. As a young businesswoman managing a number of H&R Block offices. As a politician serving first in the Washington State Legislature and later, after an unprecedented write-in campaign, in Congress. And, for the last 18 years, as the head of an international NGO, working to eradicate sex trafficking.
While still in Congress, Smith traveled to Mumbai, India, where she was appalled at the sight of women and children kept in small stalls and sold for sex countless times each day. She returned home and, around the kitchen table in her Hazel Dell home, organized a new nonprofit, Shared Hope International.
The following year Shared Hope established its first Village of Hope in India, where women and children rescued from the commercial sex industry could get education and vocational training. Those with HIV received medical care.
Later, a grant from the State Department enabled the organization to begin researching the business model driving trafficking in four target nations — Jamaica, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States.
“And I was shocked. It was ordinary guys. And a lot of them were buying children. Guys you may know. Typical American men.” She pauses. “Buying American children.”
The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 4.5 million people around the world trapped in forced sexual exploitation. And many of them are children. According to the Portland Police Bureau, sex trafficking of children is a $5 billion a year international industry, with children as young as 10 being actively recruited for pornography and prostitution.
“This is multiple crimes against a child,” says Smith. “Kidnapping. Torture. Rape. Repeatedly.”
In addition to restoration of survivors, Shared Hope began working on prevention, and on bringing both johns — who create the demand that drives the market — and pimps to justice. They began taking on trafficking in this country as well as overseas. And they began focusing on the children.
It’s not just New York and Los Angeles, Smith says. Children are being bought and sold in Portland and Vancouver. Portland, she says, has more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the country. And where there are strip clubs, there are children being sold.
“Keeping Portland weird is sacrificing their children,” says Smith. “And ours. Every other state’s kids are coming here. The border issue is really big.”
Terry Coonan, Executive Director of Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, estimates that there are over 20,000 homeless minors in Oregon, many from other states. He says the average female runaway comes into contact with a pimp within 48 hours of leaving home, and the average age of entry into prostitution is now 13.
“This is a little girl,” says Smith, “who is a victim of a crime. Name me one other crime where the victim is attacked, then labeled — called a prostitute — then jailed. The victim. There are two issues here. Children are being arrested. And the buyer, under current law, gets a fine.”
So, at an age where most people are retired, Smith is working 60-hour weeks, trying to shut down a multi-billion dollar industry.
“It’s tough,” says Smith. “Physically, mentally, emotionally tough. Every day. But there aren’t very many people who have as many precious relationships as I have.” Smith says she stays connected with many of the girls and women Shared Hope has rescued from prostitution over the years.
It’s clear in talking to her that grief and anger come with the territory. But, she says, there’s also joy.
“I’m so connected to the (survivors’) healing process that there’s a balance.”
Another nourishing relationship is with her husband of 48 years, Vern. They met as teens at Fort Vancouver High School, where they both sang in the choir. The big attraction for her, she says, at least initially, was his father’s car.
“I had four little brothers and sisters, and his father had a station wagon. It wasn’t so much him but that car!” Smith says laughing. But it was more than just that.
“Vern was a calm, kind person,” she says. They were married just shy of Smith’s 18th birthday.
“I have a retired husband now! He traveled. We both did.” But these days, Smith says, they have breakfast, take an hour’s walk, and pray together before she goes into the office. “We have to start very early to do that,” she says. “But we do.”
Looking back, Smith says her life “(hasn’t) fit anything I thought I would do.” Left to her own devices, she says, she would have continued as a businesswoman, maybe owned a PR company.
“But from the write-on campaign on, I’ve just showed up, and things have happened, and I’ve done things, that are definitely beyond me. But there’s satisfaction for standing for what you believe is right. If you believe every life is precious. . . .” Her voice trails off. “I couldn’t be more satisfied with any other life.”
- For more information on Shared Hope International go to sharedhope.org.
- To listen to Smith’s Tedx Talk on child sex trafficking in Portland and Vancouver, go to sharedhope.org/tedx