Is the fight against human trafficking at a turning point in Pittsburgh? Elizabeth Echevarria, 49, founder of Living in Liberty, a faith-based, nonprofit association that sets up safe houses specifically for women victims of sex trafficking, would like to believe so.
"It has been going on for a while, but there is still a lot of things to be done," she said.
Last week, she left her job to work full-time on her dream: to provide basic needs to victims and open a safe house in Pittsburgh for "women that have suffered."
"Everything is in process right now," said Barbara Gontaruk, 50, the association's board treasurer. "We have a place that is fully furnished and we have four beds ready." This is already a big success for an association that was created in February 2012. "The house is not a passing through. We are actually the stopping point," said Mrs. Gontaruk, a registered nurse.
Mrs. Echevarria has been working on this idea of creating a safe house in Pittsburgh for the past five years. Originally from Virginia, she relocated to Pennsylvania with the idea of finding the right property. When the property was donated, the association formed a board and started meeting monthly.
"It's a refuge, a place where you can be safe," explained Mrs. Gontaruk. "It's a place where we help women to get back into society."
Human trafficking victims are forced into slavery, involuntary labor and other forms of servitude to repay debts, often for transportation into the U.S., according to the website for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which investigates human trafficking.
Living in Liberty plans to train victims of sex trafficking in occupational and life skills. "A lot of these women are trafficked at a really young age. They don't know how to take care of themselves," Mrs. Gontaruk said.
When asked where the house was located, Mrs. Gontaruk remained vague: "If I seem protective, don't take it the wrong way. The idea of a safe house is to have a house that is safe, so let's just say that the house is in Allegheny County." Because the place was fully financed by 20 volunteers, the association would like to raise funds to help victims.
Thus, it will hold a 5K Run/Walk at 9 a.m. Saturday at North Park Boathouse. "We want people to join the battle," said Mrs. Gontaruk, who is hoping for a turnout of 60 people.
Lisa Gibbs, 30, is another volunteer at Living in Liberty. She grew up in Thailand and arrived in Pittsburgh when she was 18. "In my native country, it was common knowledge that young girls were kidnapped. My mom had explained the problem to me so I always had the idea of wanting to do something," she said. "But it seemed so big that I didn't know what to do."
According to Mrs. Gibbs, a pastry chef, human trafficking occurs when people's basic human rights have been taken away or when people are "just not able to walk down the street freely." But, "trying to fight sex trafficking locally is such a difficult mission."
According to Mrs. Gontaruk, the biggest difficulty the association is facing "is the fact that sex trafficking is so hidden. It is dark; it is happening right under our nose, but we can't see it. Many associations like ours are facing the same problem."
When asked if it will not be easier to form one big association to fight human trafficking, she said that every group has a specific mission and a specific thing to focus on.
"We know the other associations. We are working together but everybody is staying under their umbrellas to make sure that everything that needs to be covered is covered. [Human trafficking] is a big issue with many facets. To come together under one organization would not help. But we all lock arms together. It takes a village to raise a child."
Race registration begins at 8 a.m. To sign up online (at livinginliberty.org), the cost is $35 for adults, $25 for youth (20 and under). To register on race day, the cost is $40 for adults and $30 for youth. Children 12 and under are free. Registration fee includes participation and event T-shirt.p>
Nicolas Dubois: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nicolasduboisJ2.