Reaching out to stem sex trafficking trade in Indonesia

Shirlee Lamoureux spent weeks volunteering in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. In a roundabout way, that’s what led her to help girls and women ensnared by the sex trade on the other side of the world.

The Whidbey Island woman is involved with Compassion First. The Oregon-based nonprofit group is working to lift up the lives of child sex trafficking survivors in Indonesia.

“I am passionate about being part of this organization,” said Lamoureux, 73, who for the second year has organized a banquet in Everett to raise money for Compassion First.

The event, “From Numbers to Names,” is scheduled for Saturday at Comcast Arena’s conference center.

Compassion First president and founder Mike Mercer visited several churches in Snohomish and Island counties over the past few months. A former pastor at Oregon’s Beaverton Foursquare Church, Mercer talked about the mission of Compassion First, which he started in 2007.

At the heart of it is a place called Ruth’s House, an after-care center in an undisclosed location in North Sulawesi, a province on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island. The center has room for up to 12 girls.

With house mothers and other workers offering care and security, Ruth’s House is funded entirely by Compassion First, an organization with Christian roots.

Bickey Lloyd, the group’s chief of staff, said young women are helped with health and psychological care, education and work opportunities, and legal aid.

Compassion First has also reached out to older women reduced to working as prostitutes in a cemetery in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, Lloyd said. In December, Compassion First sponsored a “Holy Night” Christmas celebration for women who live and work in the cemetery, selling themselves for as little as 75 cents.

Lamoureux has never been to Indonesia. The seeds of her involvement in Compassion First were planted when she met Mercer in Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. She was there for weeks as a volunteer with Oak Harbor’s Living Word Foursquare Church. Mercer was volunteering in Biloxi as Beaverton Foursquare’s pastor.

After Biloxi, where Lamoureux helped frame a house, she and Mercer stayed in touch. “Mike’s life evolved into what is now finding solutions and hope for victims of sex trafficking,” she said. “I just kind of followed. This really tugged at my heart.”

And that’s what led her to organize the fundraiser next weekend at Comcast. Saturday’s dinner program includes a talk by Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Mike Geiger, who has been to Indonesia to help alleviate the tragedy of children sold or stolen for sex.

Geiger has seen the ravages of Indonesia’s sex industry.

More than a year ago, he was part of a separate program funded by the federal Justice Department that provides training help to police in Bangladesh. Because his work with the sex assault unit in Portland focuses on domestic sex trafficking, he was introduced to Mercer. And last April, Geiger extended his trip leading a police team to Bangladesh to include a stop in Indonesia.

Since then, he has made more trips to Indonesia, where he has befriended a police chief and is planning a training for judges related to the sex-trafficking issue.

From Portland Friday, Geiger said there are good reasons to help victims in a far-off place, even as the sex trade touches young people here.

“Indonesia is a source and a destination,” he said, explaining that young women there are taken from their homes by sex traffickers, and sex tourism also brings predators there.

The geography of many islands makes it a place nearly impossible to police, he said. It’s also a poor country, Geiger said.

“Recruiters come into a small village and offer a poor family’s daughter a chance to work, maybe as a hostess at a karaoke club. What happens is, she’s put on a boat and taken away from home to a different country or an outlying island,” Geiger said. Police have few resources to help, nor are poor families able to hunt down their children.

“People from around the globe travel to some of these nations for sex. This country’s hands are not clean in this,” Geiger said.

Indonesian parents “love their children like we do,” he said.

“I believe we are strong enough, and our hearts are big enough to have compassion not only for our own children, but other people’s children as well,” Geiger said.

Lamoureux hopes people here are willing to hear what’s happening so far away, and want to help.

“When you think about a 13-year-old girl being paid 12 to 15 times day for her services, it’s stunning,” she said. “My heart is with Compassion First.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Event Saturday

Compassion First, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of child sex trafficking in Indonesia, will hold a fundraising dinner and program at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Comcast Arena’s Edward D. Hansen Conference Center, 2000 Hewitt Ave., Everett. Featured speaker at the “From Numbers to Names” banquet will be Sgt. Mike Geiger, Portland Police Bureau sex assault unit. Registration and an exhibit open at 4 p.m. Table sponsorship is $400 for a table of 10. There is no cost to attend as an individual, but rsvp needed; email shirlee@compassionfirst.org.

To learn more or donate: www.compassionfirst.org.

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